Department of Energy Announces Plan to Get Ignition Facility Back on Track "I remain deeply disappointed at the manner in which these problems were handled," Energy Secretary Bill Richardson said in a release issued late last month on the National Ignition Facility. He then added, importantly, "But I am also convinced that the underlying science of the NIF remains sound."
Richardson has announced changes in NIF's management. He acted in response to information that was slow in being announced that the project had encountered potentially serious cost overruns. These problems were first indicated in March 1999. Compounding the problem was the failure of DOE headquarters staff to advise Richardson of this problem until August.
The National Ignition Facility is being built at DOE's Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. The facility is described as "a cornerstone of the DOE's Stockpile Stewardship Program to keep the nation's nuclear weapons stockpile safe and reliable without nuclear testing." One hundred and ninety-two laser beams will produce nuclear fusion ignition in this stadium-sized facility that was scheduled for completion in 2003.
DOE states that "problems were first discovered last year in the NIF construction project when it was found that the assembly and integration of the laser infrastructure had been underestimated in both cost and schedule." Richardson has been very critical of how the project has been carried out, telling the House Armed Services Committee last month that "bad management has overtaken good science." "I don't want this to ever happen again . . . I"m going to be very tough on them."
Richardson has instituted management changes at DOE's Headquarters, its Oakland Field Office, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and the University of California which manages the lab. Among them is a new Associate Director for NIF Programs which reports directly to the laboratory director. UC will provide stronger oversight through its President's Council. A new Headquarters NIF Project Office will focus more attention on the facility. The Oakland Field Office has increased the number of employees assigned to NIF. The facility has been designated "a pilot project for the Congressionally-mandated Project Management and Oversight (PMO) function, providing an on- site contractor with project management expertise to the Department of Energy. This outside contractor will provide a resident expert in complex project management, enabling the DOE staff to more effectively analyze the industrial contractor's project performance. This contractor will be paid from the $2 million performance fee that the University of California was required to return to the Department in recognition of the significant mission disruption caused by the project's problems." Finally, NIF has been placed on the Department's Chief Operating Officer's Watch List.
In looking ahead, DOE states that it "is considering options for addressing the NIF's cost and schedule issues. Once Secretary Richardson has determined which option he wants to pursue, the Office of the Deputy Administrator for Defense Programs, with input from LLNL, will put forward a detailed rebaselining plan which will include a budget and key project milestones." Congress is to receive this plan by June 1, although Richardson wants to have it completed before then.
Richard M. Jones