WASHINGTON -- The US General Accounting Office (GAO) says estimates that the National Ignition Facility will be completed in 2008 at a cost of $3.3 billion are too low and that the world's largest science experiment could easily surpass $4 billion.
The US Department of Energy (DoE) reported in June that the money needed for the laser project grossly exceeded original estimates for completion in 2002 at a cost of $2.1 billion. The congressional investigatory agency, however, charged in August that project managers had failed to consider necessary research and development costs from other programs to support the project. "Since ... technical uncertainties persist, the cost of NIF could grow even higher and completion could take even longer," the report concluded.
A worker cleans optical components at the National Ignition Facility. Federal auditors say cost overruns associated with the project are caused by the failure of project developers to recognize the difficulty of assembling and installing the highly intricate and tightly packed network of 192 laser beams in a structure that requires high cleanliness standards.
The accounting office advised Congress to thoroughly consider whether to continue to fund the technically unproven project. It specifically cautioned against a proposal by Energy Secretary Bill Richardson to divert up to $1 billion from the existing weapons budget -- earmarked for other nuclear weapons programs at the Sandia and Los Alamos national laboratories -- to revitalize the laser project. The University of California is under contract to the DoE to build the facility at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, Calif. The project has been touted as the cornerstone of the nation's Stockpile Stewardship Program, a means to test nuclear weapons without conducting actual explosions.
Despite cost overruns and reports of management complicity, the project has supporters who praise it for advancing the science of large-aperture optics. As designed, it would focus 192 beams on a pea-size target and generate a thermonuclear explosion. "What's coming out of this project rivals what is coming out of the space program," said Bruce D. Jennings, CEO of Schott Glass Technologies Inc. in Duryea, Pa.
Schott, a 12-year contractor for Lawrence Livermore, was instrumental in improving the quality of the facility's phosphate laser glass. Jennings said the commercial technology spin-offs haven't been well-explained because of the attention to management issues. And, although Schott is a major contractor for the project, he said federal auditors did not contact the company for comment. The project is beset with unexpected problems but should go forward, he believes.
"It's been a hell of a learning experience for everyone," he said.
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