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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 50, September 2000

NIF Struggles On

On September 15, US Energy Secretary Bill Richardson submitted to Congress a delayed baseline report outlining a new schedule and budget for completion of the National Ignition Facility (NIF) under construction at the Lawrence Livermore National laboratory (LLNL) in California since 1997. The facility is designed to simulate a thermonuclear detonation and thus help the US maintain its nuclear stockpile without underground testing. In the words of a Department press release (September 15), when completed in September 2008, at a total project cost of $3.5 billion, NIF "will be one of the world's largest laser facilities. The NIF building is more than 90% complete and the 33-foot diameter target chamber has been installed. The facility will use 192 beams of ultraviolet laser light to compress and heat small capsules of deuterium and tritium to fusion ignition for the first time in a laboratory." In the words of Secretary Richardson (September 15): "NIF is essential for our stockpile stewardship programme... This report details the extensive work performed in getting NIF back on track." The full baseline report is available on the Department's website at http://www.dp.doe.gov.

Of the total project costs, $2.2 billion are dedicated to construction costs, estimated originally (1995) at $1 billion, and recently (January, 2000) at $1.5 billion. The facility was originally scheduled to enter full service in 2004. On September 7, the Senate adopted by voice vote an amendment to the Fiscal Year (FY) 2001 Energy and Water Appropriations Bill proposed by Tom Harkin (Democrat - Indiana) capping NIF spending for the next fiscal year to $74.1 million, and requiring an independent study by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) into the merits of continuing with the project. The Energy Department argues that it needs to spend $209 million in FY 2001 to stay on track for project completion in 2008. According to Madelyn Creedon, Deputy Administrator at the Department's Nuclear Weapons Agency, speaking on September 15, at $74 million, "the project would be in serious jeopardy." Congressional concern at further price and schedule overruns were heightened in mid-August, however, with the release of a report by the General Accounting Office (GAO) which was scathing in its critique of Department procedures for assessing and monitoring the project. In the view of Representative Floyd Spence (Republican - South Carolina), the GAO report was "extremely disquieting". Senator Pete Domenici (Republican - New Mexico) stated that in "my own assessment...that GAO report will haunt" the NIF project henceforth.

On September 11, Robert K. Musil, Executive Director of the Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR), hailed the Senate's adoption of the Harkin amendment, calling the whole NIF project "a scandal" which was "grievously over budget, technically flawed and scientifically dubious." According to Musil: "NIF has no role in maintaining nuclear weapons safely. It is welfare for weaponeers who can't wean themselves off public funding for new weapons design work. ... The NIF must be cancelled outright. The US should be implementing its promise [to disarm] in the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty, not building facilities to design new nuclear weapons."

Reports: Energy Dept. - laser cost doubled, Associated Press, August 17; Feds say laser project costs soar, Associated Press, August 17; Laser project is delayed and over budget, New York Times, August 19; A blow to DOE, a victory for common sense - Senate imposes budget cap on troubled National Ignition facility, Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR) Press Release, September 11; Energy Department report confirms National Ignition Facility is on track, US Department of Energy Press Release R-00-233, September 15; Study - laser should be done by 2008, Associated Press, September 15.

© 2000 The Acronym Institute.