Reading Room

for immediate release, September 2, 1999

Livermore Lab Megalaser: $300 Million Over Budget and a Year Behind Schedule

Lab Watchdog Group Calls For Congressional Hearings, Budget Investigation Into National Ignition Facility Cost Overruns

The report that E. Michael Campbell resigned his position as Associate Director for Lasers at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory because he failed to complete his Ph.D. is but a cover story. The real story is that the National Ignition Facility (NIF) is $300 million over budget and one full year behind schedule, according to long-time lab employees.

That two of Campbell's top lieutenants on the NIF project, Jeffrey Paisner and Joseph Kilkenny are being "reassigned" is part of the shake up over the cost overrun, say employees.

Tri-Valley CAREs began conducting interviews last week with senior scientific staffers at the three major nuclear weapons laboratories, Lawrence Livermore, Los Alamos and Sandia.

NIF is mired in scientific and technical difficulties that Livermore Lab and its parent agency, the Dept. of Energy, are trying to hide from Congress and the public, we were told. There are three "show stopper" areas where NIF is rapidly falling behind schedule and incurring cost overruns-$300 million and rising, employees say.

  • Target fabrication - This refers to the design and manufacture of the cryogenic (frozen) balls containing the radioactive fuel that NIF's 192 laser beams are supposed to compress uniformly and instantly to achieve the temperatures and other phenomena found in the later stages of an exploding nuclear weapon.

  • Diagnostics - This is the sophisticated array of equipment that is required to provide a highly accurate record of what goes on in a NIF target "shot." These results are to be fed into the nuclear weapons codes, the software that is central to nuclear weapons design.

  • Glass development and delivery - This refers to the refinement and manufacture of exceedingly complex optics, special lenses and crystals that comprise the basis for NIF - which is a glass laser. No glass means no laser.

In essence, Livermore Lab officials have been spending the money as fast as they get it, but have failed to accomplish the milestones those funds were supposed to achieve.

Tri-Valley CAREs is calling for a Congressional inquiry into NIF spending.

"Top Lab and DOE management should be forced to come clean now, before any more checks are cashed. NIF's overall budget for fiscal year 2000, which starts on October 1, contains nearly half a billion dollars," said Marylia Kelley, executive director of the Livermore-based Tri-Valley CAREs. "Congress should not risk throwing good money out after bad."

Employees say the Lab has attempted to hide the overrun by pulling target fabrication, diagnostics and glass delivery out of NIF's "project" budget. That's how, say staffers, Mike Campbell justified standing on stage at the target chamber dedication in June boasting NIF was "on budget." Just missing a few key ingredients, that's all.

Since all those things will need to be purchased, Livermore Lab and the DOE management plan to rob money from other programs at Livermore, Los Alamos and Sandia labs to make up for the overrun, say scientists.

"NIF is the 800 pound gorilla poised and ready to squash many smaller, more worthy projects at the labs," Kelley commented. "This worries employees whose programs may be affected through no fault of their own."

NIF's technical difficulties have also caused its completion date to slip by 12 months, say sources close to the program. While Lab and DOE officials are still saying publicly that NIF will be on line in 2003, several months ago the projected start date was secretly bumped backed to 2004, say knowledgeable scientists.

NIF is, at best, half-built (according to the Lab management's assessment).

"That NIF could be this far over budget and behind schedule is indicative of a program in deep trouble, and one whose management insisted on plunging full speed ahead before key scientific problems were resolved," said Kelley.

Kelley continued, "A $300 million cost overrun is particularly astonishing when one considers that NIF's construction estimates have nearly doubled, from $677 million to $1.2 billion. How could NIF garner such huge budget increases and still incur an overrun on top of that?"

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