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’Six-Step’ Program Prescribed for Ignition Facility

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Daniel S. Burgess

US Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson presented a six-step plan to address the management problems that have menaced the National Ignition Facility project at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, Calif. The $1.2 billion fusion research program, which Richardson had proclaimed to be "on time and on budget," is two years behind schedule and facing cost overruns of up to $350 million.

Richardson stressed that the laser facility's problems are not technological. "The underlying science of the [facility] remains sound," he said in an official statement Sept. 3. "These are project management issues." Accordingly, his proposals focus on the manner in which the laboratory officials were able to conceal the financial dilemma from seven scientific and four management audits since 1996, including a congressional review that concluded this spring.

Richardson recommended a shuffling of the management bureaucracy, the outsourcing of construction and a reallocation of department funding. The facility's administration, already under heightened scrutiny with its inclusion on the Department of Energy's (DoE) Project Management Watch List, faces inspections by an independent panel and the department, and it will also conduct an internal investigation. The US House Science Committee has directed the General Accounting Office to arrange the study.

The lab will not assemble the 192-laser device; instead, the work will be contracted out to independent manufacturers. The University of California system, which as manager of Lawrence Livermore will lose at least $2 million of its $5.6 million program performance contract, must take a more active role in the project. The cost overruns will be absorbed by the DoE's other defense programs.

Susan Houghton, senior media relations manager at Lawrence Livermore, said it was too early to tell what the impact on the program will be. The decision to contract the assembly and integration of the facility will have a minimal effect on the primary partners. She envisioned that the DoE "will hire one giant contractor for project management" that will subcontract the work.

An official has suggested that the DoE could downgrade the facility to comprise 96 lasers by 2004, with the possibility of constructing the other 96 by 2008. Houghton said in response that there have been many suggestions and that the lab awaits a decision by the department. "The ball is in their court," she said.

Photonics Spectra
Nov 1999
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