The change in presidential administrations has cast doubt on the futures of many government programs and initiatives, but one that seems to be unshaken by the transition is the National Ignition Facility.
In his first federal budget proposal, details of which were unveiled in April, President George W. Bush requested $245 million for the 2002 fiscal year, which starts October 1. That would be an increase over the $199 million that Congress appropriated for NIF for this fiscal year.
The Bush administration's support for NIF is clear. One budget document states, "The National Ignition Facility remains a cornerstone requirement of the Stockpile Stewardship Program," which will use experiments and computer simulations to monitor the nation's aging stockpile of nuclear weapons.
The National Ignition Facility, under construction at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (Livermore, CA), will consist of an array of 192 lasers, which would be focused on a pellet of frozen hydrogen. The beams would place the pellet under enormous pressure and heat, triggering thermonuclear reactions that could be used to refine computer simulations of nuclear explosions. NIF came under intense criticism—and with it, Livermore lab officials, the University of California, and the Clinton administration's Department of Energy (DOE)—over disclosures last year that the program had fallen far behind schedule and was over budget. Alarmed lawmakers forbade the DOE from spending $69 million of this year's funds until the department certifies that it has taken six specific management steps for NIF.
The Department of Energy had not made that certification as of April 4, when John Gordon, administrator of the DOE's National Nuclear Security Administration, testified before a House Armed Services subcommittee. However, Gordon told lawmakers at the hearing that he expected to be able to submit the certification "very quickly."
He reassured the lawmakers that NIF's management has improved. "We've re-baselined the National Ignition Facility and put it back on a clear track and a clear way ahead. There really is a tremendous change in the attitude and the approach," said Gordon.
"On my first visit out there, there was a great discussion about the wonderful science that could come out of these lasers, and there was a little bit of hand-waving about how it was proceeding," said Gordon, who became head of the National Nuclear Security Administration in June 2000. But attitudes among NIF personnel are different now, he said. "If you go out there today, you'll find that the building is done. They're beginning to install the laser parts and laser supports inside the building, but, much more importantly, their briefing now is, 'Here's what I did last week. Here's my milestone. Here's my cost. Here's my earned value.' So we have some significant changes in how that's being managed and how it's going ahead." The General Accounting Office (GAO)—Congress's own investigative agency—has been sharply critical of the NIF project management. But later during the same hearing, a GAO official said that the project's prospects have brightened. "Certainly the management of the project has improved," James Noel told lawmakers. But Noel also warned them, "We still believe that there needs to be rigorous independent [overseeing] of the project."
The Bush administration's support for NIF was also evident in an environmental protection decision published by the DOE in the Federal Register just days before the budget details were released. In the decision, required by federal law, the DOE weighed possible environmental impacts from NIF in order to decide whether to continue with the project or to terminate it. The analysis, signed by Spencer Abraham, the Bush administration's energy secretary, concludes that "DOE's purpose and need for the NIF remains the same" as the Clinton administration stated in an environmental-impact statement in 1996. The new analysis also rejects objections raised by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC; Washington, DC) that NIF's construction could lead to the release of toxic or radioactive wastes buried on the laboratory grounds.
Despite support from the Bush administration, challenges to NIF are likely to continue. On March 28, NRDC and a Livermore-based environmental group, Tri-Valley Cares, won a preliminary injunction against NIF. In his ruling, Federal Judge Emmet G. Sullivan temporarily prohibited the DOE from further work on recommendations prepared by an NIF advisory committee last year. The panel developed a plan for coping with NIF's schedule slips and cost overruns, and its results have been very influential on Capitol Hill. But Judge Sullivan ruled that the panel's activities probably violated the Federal Advisory Committee Act, which requires open meetings by federal advisory groups and public access to documents that they use or produce. The DOE has asked him to reconsider his ruling, and he will hear arguments on the DOE motion next month.