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Opponents Blast Laser Fusion Facility Costs

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Stephanie A. Weiss

The National Ignition Facility will cost more than $32 billion over its 30-year lifetime, more than six times the figure that the US Department of Energy estimated when Congress agreed to fund the facility, according to a recent report by an opposition group.

Energy Department officials disputed the figure in a terse press release that said the report is "extremely inaccurate."

In 1995, Congress approved the 192-beam laser project based on an Energy Department estimate that total construction costs would be $1.1 billion. In September, after studying the construction delays and cost overruns, Energy officials revised the estimate to $3.45 billion, and they reiterated that figure in an April baseline certification to Congress.

Costly omission

Tri-Valley Communities Against a Radioactive Environment, an activist group that opposes the facility, says that the final construction cost will reach $4.96 billion.

The report by Robert Civiak, a cost examiner at the federal Office of Management and Budget in 1998 and 1999, says that Energy officials' cost tallies have omitted some key expenses, including several related to target design.

Furthermore, the report says that the Energy Department has badly underestimated the costs of running the facility upon its completion. Energy officials estimate that it will cost $145 million per year (in 2001 dollars), but Civiak's report says the costs will be $440 million per year.

The report lists several unresolved technical issues that could prevent the National Ignition Facility from ever operating:
  • Optical damage could limit the number of experiments per year at full energy.
  • No one has produced KDP or DKDP frequency-tripling crystals that meet the required smoothness and orientation specifications.
  • No one has produced fusion targets that meet the ignition specifications.
  • Vendors are having trouble producing high-purity neodymium glass slabs that meet specifications.
The Energy Department's fiscal 2002 budget request includes $467.9 million for inertial confinement fusion research, including $245 million for continued construction of the facility.

Photonics Spectra
Jun 2001
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