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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 47, June 2000

More Troubled Waters for NIF

On June 1, the US Energy Department submitted a report requested by Congress on the status and prospects of the National Ignition Facility (NIF), the pioneering laser-array development project at the Lawrence Livermore National laboratory (LLNL) at the University of California designed to help maintain US nuclear warheads without testing. As reported in recent issues, NIF is significantly behind schedule and over budget, and Css had requested the completion of a 'rebaseline' review, detailing a new budget and timeline, by the time of the report. However, as Air Force Brigadier General Thomas Gioconda, Acting Assistant Secretary for the Energy Department's Defense Programs, told reporters (June 1): "We are requesting more time from Congress to make sure we go through a detailed review… We have not completed a bottom-up review." Gioconda added that the process should now be completed by mid-September. The report does contain preliminary estimates, suggesting a project-cost of around $2.25 billion, from the original 1997 estimate of $1.2 billion, and a time-overrun of around 4 years, with completion now likely in 2008. In the short term, the Department has drawn up a plan limiting the amount of additional funding it will need to request from Congress to $95 million for Fiscal Year 2001 - however, the plan involves controversial cuts to other Department programmes.

On May 24, the NIF project was openly criticised by a senior official at Sandia National Laboratories. In an internal position paper apparently released to the public inadvertently, Thomas Hunter, the laboratory's Vice-President for Nuclear Weapons Programs, argued: "The apparent delay and significant increase in cost for the NIF is sufficient that it will disrupt the investment needed to be made at the other laboratories, and perhaps at the production plants, by several years. This causes us to question what is a reasonable investment in the NIF. … [W]e believe that a facility less than full-scale, i.e. less than the 192 laser beams, should be established at a new baseline." On May 25, Energy Secretary Richardson expressed acute annoyance at the release of the paper: "This statement is totally out of line and inconsistent with the nation's stockpile stewardship policies and the critical role that NIF will play… Needless to say, Mr. Hunter's view will be totally disregarded and it is the type of lab divisiveness that is extremely unhelpful." The same day, Hunter issued a statement regretting the incident and conceding: "It is not our role to take a formal public position on this issue, nor to second guess the Department of Energy. … Public divisiveness between the laboratories is not helpful to finding good solutions and is counter to the approach we try to take in dealing with these important national issues."

Reports: Laser project could vaporize labs' budget, Sandia worries, Albuquerque Tribune, May 25; New laser project criticized, Associated Press, May 25; Sandia lab 'regrets' its NIF project assessment, Albuquerque Tribune, May 26; Sandia crosses Richardson, urges NIF cut, Energy Daily, May 26; Livermore lab misses deadline - Congress threatens to dismantle highly troubled laser project, Tri-Valley Herald, June 2; New cost and schedule estimates for National Ignition facility, The American Institute of Physics Bulletin of Science Policy News, No. 65, June 15.

© 2000 The Acronym Institute.

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