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National Ignition Facility: Management, Technical, and Other Issues

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The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is building a very large laser facility to provide scientific support for its program to maintain the safety, reliability, and performance levels of the nation's stockpile of nuclear weapons in the absence of nuclear testing. This National Ignition Facility (NIF), which is designed to simulate the behavior of nuclear explosions, is under construction at DOE's Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL).

In August 1999, however, DOE announced that the project had run into some serious problems that would likely result in a significant increase in its cost estimate. The root cause of this problem was determined to be inadequate experience and capabilities in managing large, complex projects on the part of the LLNL NIF project team. Correcting these problems would require obtaining outside expertise and management that would significantly increase the project's cost. In addition, a review by the NIF Council of LLNL reported that substantial technical issues remained unresolved, although LLNL is confident that they can be resolved. In some cases, however, solutions do not appear to be obvious.

In its revised project baseline and schedule, DOE now estimates the project cost to be $3.45 billion, 60% above the original estimate, and its completion date as 2006. A GAO report issued in August 2000 estimated the cost of the project at $3.89 billion. In response to congressional direction, DOE submitted a letter to Congress on April 5, 2001, certifying that NIF should be built to the full 192 beams and that the September cost estimate and schedule would be met.

On June 1, 2001, GAO released a second report stating that the three DOE weapons labs do not agree on the value of NIF, as currently configured, for the stockpile stewardship program. GAO also noted that DOE has not set up an external, independent review of the project and does not intend to do so.

For FY2002, DOE requested $245 million for NIF construction. Congress (H.R.2311 and S.1171, H.Rept.107-258) appropriated the full FY2002 request for NIF, adding $7 million to the DOE inertial confinement fusion (ICF) program for NIF-related activities. The House (H.R.2586) and Senate (S.1438) each authorized $245 million for NIF construction, adding $10 million to the DOE ICF program for NIF-related activities.

In addition to the management and technology concerns, the NIF project raises other issues, including: the effectiveness of NIF in meeting the goals of the DOE program to maintain the nuclear weapons stockpile; the likelihood that NIF will reach its principal scientific goals; the potential effect NIF may have on nuclear nonproliferation; and uncertainty about NIF's contribution to the advancement of inertial fusion energy research. The management and technical issues, and the role of NIF in the stockpile stewardship program appear to be of particular concern.