Laser Focus World

BREAKING NEWS: DOE takes aim as NIF stumbles

LIVERMORE, CA - On September 3, US Department of Energy (DoE) Secretary Bill Richardson announced a six-point program to address the administrative causes of cost overruns and scheduling delays in the construction of its National Ignition Facility (NIF) at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL). At the same time, Richardson declared, "The underlying science at the NIF remains sound." Based on an investigative report by an antinuclear watchdog group and discussions with industry sources, however, the real science at NIF -- in terms of thorough and objective inquiry and observation -- may be just about to begin. And so far the most likely hypotheses seem to be coming from the rumor mill.

At the time of this writing, the DoE had not given official figures for the scope of the problems at NIF, but newspapers were estimating cost overruns of up to $300 million and schedule delays of a year or more. Richardson blamed the problems on "project-management issues" and proposed addressing them "with aggressive and tighter management action from this department." Richardson's proposed reforms would contract out major assembly and integration at NIF instead of performing it in house and appoint an independent panel to analyze technical options and make recommendations. The reforms would also handle cost issues within budget funding guidelines for LLNL and DoE defense programs, withhold at least $2 million from a $5.6 million performance fee payable to the University of California for project management, and subject NIF to monthly review and compliance reporting. A complete management review is also intended.

While Richardson's statement strongly criticized what appears to have been a poorly managed NIF construction effort, it also raised troubling questions as to what the real problems were and whether they will be effectively addressed. For instance, E. Michael Campbell, "the laboratory official responsible for NIF, has already resigned due to nonrelated personal issues," said Richardson. Campbell, the former associate director for laser programs at LLNL and a fellow of the American Physical Society had won a number of awards for his work in the laser-assisted inertial-confinement-fusion technology that NIF is based on. The "nonrelated personal issue" that removed him from the scrutiny of a management review just days before the scandal broke was the revelation -- which seems to have previously eluded security checking procedures for officials at his level -- that he didn't really have a Ph.D. At the same time, two other senior staff members at NIF were reassigned to other projects in the DoE national lab system.

Ironically, the void in credibility created by the Campbell issue is being filled quite neatly at present by a highly critical report from an anti-NIF watchdog group based in Livermore. In a press release dated September 2, Tri-Valley CAREs (Citizens Against a Radioactive Environment) charged that the problems at NIF are due to technological as opposed to administrative problems. CAREs' executive director Marylia Kelley, who authored the report, listed three areas of significant technical difficulty "that Livermore Lab and its parent agency, the Department of Energy, are trying to hide from Congress and the public." These problem areas are target fabrication (the cryogenic balls containing radioactive fuel), diagnostics (monitoring equipment), and glass development and delivery (optics, lenses, and crystals).

Kelley said her information was obtained through confidential interviews with scientists working on NIF and related inertial-confinement-fusion research at Los Alamos National Laboratory (Los Alamos, NM) and Sandia National Laboratories (Albuquerque, NM, and Livermore, CA), which implies that the problems may have been widely known and that alleged mismanagement may have originated from a level higher than LLNL.

After being presented with the gist of Kelley's allegations, a DoE spokesperson replied, "At this point, I do not have anything to add to the statement issued by the Secretary last week." But confidential discussions conducted by this publication with industry sources seemed to corroborate the implication of a significant technological lag. While the NIF project is based on exciting science, a significant portion of it may still be too far out on the leading edge to produce reliable devices in accordance with the NIF construction schedule.

Kelley said that scientists working on various aspects of inertial-confinement-fusion research expressed concern that major portions of their funding and effort were being diverted to tackle the problems at NIF. "NIF is the 800-pound gorilla poised and ready to squash many smaller, more worthy projects at the labs," she said. Kelley added that CAREs will push for Congress to make the NIF "come clean now, before it starts cashing its fiscal-year 2000 budget checks on October 1."

This may be easier said than done, however. According to Richardson's statement on September 3, "seven scientific and four management reviews, including a congressionally mandated review completed this spring," had previously failed to note the budgetary and scheduling problems at NIF. Evidently NIF may still be in need of sound science, in the evaluation process.-HJ-B (Editor)