After reports last year of cost overruns and mismanagement in construction of the National Ignition Facility (NIF), DOE was forced to restructure the project. Congress, in its FY 2000 appropriations bill, demanded new cost and schedule estimates for NIF. On June 1, Energy Secretary Bill Richardson sent to Congress an "interim certification for the revised cost and schedule baseline." According to background materials for this interim assessment, the new plan for proceeding with NIF construction could nearly double the estimated total project cost, from $1.2 billion to as much as $2.25 billion, and stretch the date of completion to FY 2008, four years beyond the original plan. The completed facility would still have a full complement of 192 beams; "first light" would be achieved in FY 2004 with eight operational beams. The original plan, before management problems arose, was for the NIF to be completed in FY 2004 at a cost of $1.2 billion. Richardson intends to submit the final certification to Congress in September, after the new baseline and project plan have undergone independent review.
The NIF, which will use lasers to approximate the conditions that exist during detonation of a nuclear weapon, is a centerpiece of DOE's Stockpile Stewardship Program to maintain the safety and reliability of U.S. nuclear weapons using computer simulations rather than nuclear testing. It is being built at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) in California.
As it restructured the program's management and revised its construction plan, DOE determined that the NIF could be completed by FY 2006 at a total cost of $1.95 billion, using the "most aggressive path to completion." However, the department chose a longer, more expensive alternative in order to keep annual costs lower and not risk draining funding from the rest of the Stockpile Stewardship Program. Richardson called for a plan that would restrict additional funding to no more than $95 million over the original FY 2001 request, no more than $150 million over the original requests for FY 2002 and 2003, and declining thereafter.
In his submission to Congress, Richardson explains that before developing a revised plan for completion, several detailed reviews reaffirmed that "the National Ignition Facility remains a cornerstone requirement of the Stockpile Stewardship Program;" "the project is technically sound and based upon good engineering design;" and the restructured project management "has demonstrated...that it is capable of managing a project of this scope."
LLNL Director Bruce Tarter, in materials provided to the Secretary for the interim certification, notes that independent reviews concluded that the full 192-beam capability of the facility was still justified. He reports that "essentially every aspect of the project" has been restructured "along classic project management lines," and that the project has taken actions to respond criticism that it was "not effectively taking advantage of industrial expertise in areas in which the laboratories do not have relevant experience." After receiving guidance on annual funding restrictions, Tarter writes, "we have created a plan consistent with the annual funding caps and have estimated that the upper bound on the [total project cost] under this plan would be $2.25 billion. In reaching this judgement on the cost," he states, "we have added some budget contingency to offset the risks" identified by the reviews. Based on DOE's analysis, Tarter adds, "I can certify that cost, schedule and performance of NIF could be met with high confidence in accordance with the selected path forward."
Secretary Richardson's letters to Members of Congress and background materials on the rebaselining are available on the DOE web site at: http://www.dp.doe.gov/dp_web/news_f.htm
Control of the NIF comes under the National Nuclear Security Administration. Yesterday the Senate approved by a vote of 97-0 the nomination of General John A. Gordon to head the NNSA.