Reading Room

Citizens Watch Newsletter June 2001

Government Audit Adds $200 Million to NIF, Discloses Plutonium Plans

by Marylia Kelley
from Tri-Valley CAREs' June 2001 newsletter, Citizen's Watch

The U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) has adjusted its estimate of the National Ignition Facility's (NIF) price tag upward another $200 million. According to the GAO's latest report, released June 1, the NIF mega-laser, now under construction at Livermore Lab, will cost $4.2 billion to build. Last August, GAO set its estimate for NIF's pre-completion costs at $4 billion.

In 1995, Department of Energy (DOE) and Lab officials told Congress that NIF would cost $1 billion. GAO has since reported that officials "low-balled" the costs to Congress.

Tri-Valley CAREs released an analysis of NIF's construction and operating costs in May 2001. "Soaring Cost, Shrinking Performance," written by Dr. Robert Civiak, calculates that a full accounting of the costs to complete construction of the NIF total $5 billion.

As GAO delves deeper into NIF's budget overrun, the agency is moving closer to our $5 billion estimate. Once the costs are included for building NIF's diagnostic equipment and its positioning system for nuclear ignition targets, then the GAO and Tri-Valley CAREs estimates are very close.

The GAO's June 1 report also states that NIF's projected annual operating budget of $108 million is based on "optimistic assumptions." The report offers 2 examples: First, GAO points out that DOE and Livermore are assuming NIF will get a special break from the Lab's usual overhead rate and, second, that the laser will be excused from paying the 6% tax levied across the board on all Lab programs to support the Laboratory Directed Research and Development, or LDRD, fund.

GAO does not discuss whether there are legal issues posed by these irregularities, nor does it examine the financial impact that NIF's proposed privileges may have on other Livermore programs that will be required to make up the deficit.

In addition to overhead issues, "Soaring Cost..." details a number of yearly costs that NIF will incur, but which are not counted in its budget. Personnel costs are one example. We estimate that NIF's annual operating costs will actually run $440 million per year.

Plutonium Plans

The GAO report suggests that plans to use plutonium in NIF experiments may be moving forward. The various radioactive substances - from tritium to highly enriched uranium to plutonium - that will or may be used in NIF are not discussed directly in the report. However, in the context of NIF's utility or lack thereof to various weapons missions, the GAO states: "Los Alamos Lab officials believe that using plutonium in NIF and achieving robust (repeatable) thermonuclear ignition are key to NIF's value in studying weapons primaries."

In 1998, Tri-Valley CAREs, Natural Resources Defense Council and 37 other plaintiff groups obtained a Court Order compelling DOE to produce a supplemental Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement before conducting experiments with plutonium in NIF. The Order gives DOE until January 1, 2004 to make a "go-no go" decision on NIF plutonium experiments. NIF is currently scheduled for completion in 2008.

When we won the Court Order, DOE insisted it had not decided whether to conduct experiments on NIF with plutonium. It now appears that the issue of plutonium use is squarely on the table - and that a decision to go forward may be imminent. Plutonium use in NIF would increase the radiation hazards faced by workers and the surrounding public.

The GAO report also offers its readers small glimpses into the controversy raging inside the weapons labs over NIF. "Goals for NIF are clouded by a lack of consensus among the three labs [Livermore, Los Alamos and Sandia] about NIF's size and how it should be deployed," the report states.

On the other hand, the GAO analysis suffers when it takes at face value DOE's assertions about Stockpile Stewardship. The scope of the current program, including plans to militarily enhance existing weapons and design wholly new ones, goes unexamined. And, positive alternatives to Stockpile Stewardship -- ranging from Remanufacturing to Curatorship to accelerated disarmament options -- go unmentioned. This limits the GAO's ability to look holistically at NIF's role.

A major GAO recommendation, however, closely echoes one of ours. "NIF still lacks an independent external review process," complains GAO. "DOE plans to continue its own internal review program - allowing Defense Programs to manage the process themselves."

The NIF has gotten as far as it has largely on the basis of biased reviews. Recently, in a Federal Advisory Committee Act lawsuit brought by NRDC and Tri-Valley CAREs, a federal judge enjoined DOE from using the results of one such review committee to garner support for NIF while forcing DOE to disband another, similar committee.

We join GAO in calling on Congress to insist on a truly independent, objective assessment of NIF. Further, Congress should stop throwing money at the laser in the absence of such a review.

Soaring Cost of the NIF Mega-Laser May Top $30 Billion

by Marylia Kelley
from Tri-Valley CAREs' June 2001 newsletter, Citizen's Watch

The Dept. of Energy (DOE) is keeping the full cost of its largest construction project from Congress and the public, according to a new study released by Tri-Valley CAREs.

The report, "Soaring Cost, Shrinking Performance: The Status of the National Ignition Facility," finds that the price of the laser fusion facility, currently being built at Livermore Lab, will likely rise to more than $30 billion over its life time.

"Soaring Cost, Shrinking Performance" provides the first detailed, independent examination of the weapons facility's key components and finds DOE excludes numerous costs from its estimate.

The study was authored by Dr. Robert Civiak, a physicist who served as the White House budget examiner for NIF and related weapons programs for over a decade. The report was released at a news conference in Washington, DC last month


Following disclosure of serious, underlying technical problems at the NIF, the Energy Department was forced by Congress to "rebaseline" the project. The DOE then increased its estimate of the cost to build NIF from $1.1 billion to $3.4 billion and moved back the construction completion date from 2002 to 2008. That increase, large as it is, does not tell the whole story.

After DOE ignored calls for an outside, independent assessment of the NIF from our organization, the General Accounting Office and others, we commissioned Dr. Civiak to investigate.

The finding: DOE still fails to include all of the laser's costs in its estimates.

"When the initial diagnostics, infrastructure costs, target design and the 'add-ons' expected before 2008 are included, the price tag for construction will likely escalate to $5 billion," Dr. Civiak explained. "Further, there is a significant potential for additional problems and delays that will drive those costs even higher."

If imputed interest costs and an additional year's delay are included, the construction estimate may reach $7.8 billion, according to "Soaring Cost, Shrinking Performance."

$32.4 billion "Life Cycle" Cost

Construction spending is the tip of the NIF iceberg, according to the study. DOE has dramatically underestimated the operating costs for the laser. A full accounting of the cost to build and operate the NIF for 30 years, as DOE plans, comes to $32.4 billion.

"Soaring Cost, Shrinking Performance" demonstrates that the DOE left personnel costs and laboratory overhead out of the NIF operating budget. It also shows how DOE substantially understated NIF's other, major operating expenses, including the necessary replacement of final optics due to damage from laser light at high fluences and the special diagnostic needs that will arise for some of the weapons experiments following construction of the laser.

"The actual cost of building and operating the NIF will be 6 times the $5 billion 'life cycle' estimate that DOE delivered to me when I was at OMB -- and to the Congress when it approved the laser," Dr. Civiak said.

Technical Problems Continue

Even at $32.4 billion, NIF is not assured of ever meeting its original design specifications. The report documents several serious technical problems that DOE has yet to resolve, despite many years of effort.

"DOE is unsure if it will be able to focus 192 laser beams at full energy and pulse length, with the requisite beam quality, simultaneously on a target," stated Dr. Civiak. "Therefore, by combining the estimated full cost of building and operating NIF with the projected reduction in performance of the laser at full energy, one can calculate that the output from the NIF laser will be only one-ninth as much per dollar spent as DOE expected as recently as last year."

"Furthermore, NIF is unlikely to reach its scientific goal of ignition," according to Dr. Civiak. "After many years of research, DOE has only theoretical designs for a fusion-capable target and has yet to fabricate a single one that meets the specifications the agency itself believes are necessary for ignition."

"The mega-laser is a boondoggle that will produce less scientific value than numerous other projects with more modest price tags," Tri-Valley CAREs' executive director, Marylia Kelley, told reporters and elected officials in DC. "NIF is the 800 pound gorilla that is sitting on more worthy priorities in the weapons complex," she continued.

For example, the DOE budget request for fiscal year 2002 contains a 48% decrease in environmental restoration funding for Livermore Lab -- while seeking to increase funds for NIF. The $467.9 million in funding requested for NIF construction and related laser fusion R&D for the next fiscal year is more than the total cut from DOE cleanup projects nationwide.

The report recommends that the Office of Management and Budget and the General Accounting Office use its analysis as a basis for conducting their own full life-cycle cost estimates for the NIF. (See related story on p. 1. Since the release of our report, GAO has added $200 million to its NIF estimate.)

The report concludes: In the final analysis, continued funding of the NIF is no longer justified, if in fact it ever was.

Cut NIF: National Call-In Day Thursday, June 21st

Tell your legislators:

  • The National Ignition Facility is plagued by technical problems and is wasting billions of taxpayer dollars.
  • The NIF undermines U.S. obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty and may provoke nuclear proliferation around the globe.
  • The NIF is not needed for the safety and reliability of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

Want to do more?

  • Share this alert with other groups and local activists.
  • Organize a call-in campaign for your local group.
  • Send letters to the editor of your local paper pointing out the NIF's nuclear proliferation dangers and its massive waste of taxpayer dollars.

This action alert is sponsored by the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability and cosponsored by a wide range of national and grassroots organizations, including Tri-Valley CAREs.


The National Ignition Facility (NIF) is a massive experimental laser fusion facility being built with billions of taxpayer dollars at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. NIF is the centerpiece of the Department of Energy's (DOE) Stockpile Stewardship Program, the endeavor to continue developing nuclear weapons even without full-scale nuclear testing. The NIF's goal is to create very brief, contained thermonuclear explosions.

The DOE claims the NIF is necessary to maintain the safety and reliability of U.S. nuclear weapons, but the physics experiments planned for the NIF have nothing to do with safety -- preventing accidental explosions or leaks in nuclear weapons -- and very little to do with how reliably the weapons perform. Safety and reliability are already ensured through ongoing, and much less expensive, DOE operations.

In truth, the NIF is slated to be used for a wide range of applications from training nuclear weapons designers to studying the effects of radiation, heat and blast on weapons components, sensors, communication satellites, and underground structures. NIF weapons effect experiments, including "laser/fireball" tests, may be used in connection with development of low-yield nuclear weapons and missile defense concepts. The mini-fusion explosions planned for NIF, and its capacity for new nuclear weapons design, undermine U.S. obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and may provoke nuclear proliferation around the globe.

The NIF has been plagued with technical problems and cost overruns. Over a billion dollars has already been wasted on the NIF. Further, if completed, it could cost over $32 billion, according to a new study commissioned by the Livermore-based group Tri-Valley CAREs (

The DOE has requested $245 million for NIF construction in 2002 and the Congress will likely be voting on this funding in late June as part of the Energy & Water Appropriations bills in both the House and the Senate.

Call 202-224-3121.

Citizen's Alerts -- Calendar Section

Monday, June 18
East Bay Water Quality Workshop
6:30 PM, Preservation Park
1233 Preservation Park Way, Oakland
(near 12th St./City Center BART)
RSVP to (415) 362-3040 by June 14

Hosted by Clean Water Action and cosponsored by Tri-Valley CAREs and other environmentalists, this workshop will cover local water quality, drinking water contaminants including arsenic and chromium, water conservation, the Consumer Confidence Reports and more. Come at 6 PM and enjoy a light meal and good conversation before the workshop.

Thursday, June 21
Tri-Valley CAREs meets
7:15 PM, Livermore Library
1000 So. Livermore Ave.
(925) 443-7148 for details

Note new time. Celebrate the first day of summer by doing something positive for peace and the environment. Join us for a lively and informative meeting. Learn what you can do to safeguard your community's health and contribute to the creation of a nuclear weapons-free 21st century. Together, we are making a difference!

Thursday, June 21
Voluntary Rolling Blackout
7 PM - 10 PM, local time zones
across the globe

If you are not at the Tri-Valley CAREs' meeting, here's something you can do from home. Turn out your lights and unplug anything you can from 7 PM to 10 PM. Light a candle, tell stories, make love, or do something else creative and fun with this time. Write to your elected officials and tell them about the " voluntary rolling blackout." Tell them you want participation & funding for energy conservation, energy efficiency and alternative fuels like solar and wind. This action has no formal sponsor. We received it via email lists. So, try the idea on for size, and -- if it fits your style -- participate!

Saturday, June 30
Brower Day
Celebrating the legacy of one of our environmental heroes, David Brower
NOON - 5 PM, MLK, Jr. Park, Berkeley
(415) 788-3666 x260 for details

Bring the whole family to this outdoor festival in celebration of the Earth and one of its foremost defenders, the late David Brower. Fun for all ages includes an Eco-Restoration Decathlon, Environmental Action Faire, Sustainable Crafts Market, and delicious organic and vegetarian food. Lee Stetson will perform as John Muir in the Schwimley Theater adjacent to park, followed by a screening of In the Light of Reverence. Martin Luther King, Jr. Park is located on MLK JR. Way at Allston & Center Streets, Berkeley. Sponsored by Earth Island Institute, the City of Berkeley, the Ecology Center, and KPFA Free Speech Radio. Cosponsored by Tri-Valley CAREs and other Bay Area environmental and social change folks.

Saturday, July 7
BBQ and media workshop
10 AM - 4 PM, Marylia's house
5720 East Ave. #116, Livermore
RSVP needed (925) 443-7148

How can we get even better coverage for our cause in newspapers, radio and TV? What does it take to do more effective interviews with reporters? Are there simple ways to develop stronger public speaking skills? Find out at a media workshop (and barbecue!) with Alliance for Nuclear Accountability public education consultant Bob Schaeffer. This session is designed for activists at all levels of skills and knowledge. Cosponsors: Tri-Valley CAREs, SF Bay Area Chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility and Western States Legal Foundation.

Back to Citizen's Watch Index