Richardson on the National Ignition Facility: "Back on Track" Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson has declared that the National Ignition Facility (NIF) is "back on track" following the release of a final baseline report and an independent technical review. National Nuclear Security Administrator John Gordon agrees, saying, "We have prepared a detailed bottom-up cost and schedule to complete the NIF project.... The independent review supports our position that the NIF management team has made significant progress and resolved earlier problems." The construction cost for NIF, as determined by the NIF Project Office, is now set at $2.248 billion, with a total project- related cost of $3.5 billion. The entire project is to be completed by 2008, with a portion of the facility available beginning in 2005.
NIF will be one of the largest laser facilities in the world, consisting of a 192-beam, neodymium-doped glass laser, delivering a peak power of 500 Terawatts. NIF is seen as a key component of the U.S. program to replace underground nuclear testing, which ended eight years ago. It is being built at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL).
Secretary Richardson was not a happy man earlier this year when he told Members of Congress that "I have been very concerned about the management of this facility . . . bad management has overtaken good science. I don't want this to ever happen again." Richardson was referring to then recently revealed reports of significantly higher construction costs and a later completion date than planned. NIF construction was originally estimated at about $1.1 billion, with a total cost of approximately $2.0 billion. Full facility completion was to have been 2004.
The "Rebaseline Validation Review of the National Ignition Facility Project" (see "What's New" at www.dp.doe.gov) addresses many of Richardson's concerns. The forty experts in the committee, chaired by Kathleen A. Carlson, Manager, DOE Nevada Operations Office, met at Livermore for five days in mid-August to review the new baseline cost and schedule. "The Committee concluded that the NIF project can be completed successfully using current technology within the total cost and schedule defined in the proposed revised baseline" the report states. Later, the report declares, "The Committee commends the NIF project for making significant progress over the past nine months in developing a cost estimate that should be adequate to ensure project success." Regarding management, the report concludes, "The Committee finds that the LLNL team is now capable of managing the NIF project in the appropriate manner to assure a high probability of successful execution."
The committee did identify some issues. Under a section entitled, "Technical Systems Evaluations; Large Optics," the report states, "There is a very high level of concern on the part of the LLNL NIF senior management with regard to recruiting and maintaining sufficient technical talent to complete the NIF project." This is not due to budget problems, but rather that "recruitment in the current high-tech economic climate is very difficult." In addition, retention is challenged by higher private sector salary offers and declining morale. Recruitment and retention problems were also identified for other components of the project.
"The LLNL NIF project management team seeks to rebuild the DOE and Nation's confidence in its ability to successfully manage a project of this scope and cost," the report later states. "I am confident that we have solved the major problems identified a year ago," Richardson assured key Members of Congress in recent correspondence. The degree to which this confidence has been restored will be known within days with the release of the conference report on the FY 2001 Energy and Water Development Appropriations bill.
Richard M. Jones