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Scientists Leaving Ignition Facility

Photonics Spectra
Sep 2000
Gaynell Terrell

Key scientists with the National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory are resigning from the world's largest laser project as Congress debates how much to fund the Big Science experiment.

Livermore spokesman Susan Houghton said the staff spent 85 full-time days in assessment and accountability hearings by various committees since US Department of Energy (DoE) Secretary Bill Richardson made public multiple, critical problems in October 1999. That's in addition to workdays devoted to preparing reports and visuals. "For the scientists, it's a question of whether to stay on with the project if there is not going to be a [National Ignition Facility] next year," she said.

Lab records show that, since the fiscal year began Oct. 1, eight flex-term and 22 career employees have left Livermore, while 33 career and three flex-term employees have transferred to other programs. During the same period, one career and three flex-term employees were hired, and 14 career and two flex-term employees transferred into the program. About 320 employees work in the lab's laser directorate, but up to 800 -- most on temporary assignment -- work on the overall project.

The $1.2 billion NIF project is an attempt to combine 192 laser beams to create a thermonuclear explosion on a minute scale. It is significantly over budget, well behind schedule and plagued by technical problems with optics assembly and cleanliness. The DoE promoted the project as key to the nation's stockpile stewardship program, a simulation model by which the US might maintain its nuclear arsenal without conducting underground nuclear explosions.

The General Accounting Office, Congress' investigative branch, said in July that regulators should thoroughly review a proposal to take up to $1 billion from lab and other national defense programs to cover cost overruns. Meanwhile, congressional funding for the project remains uncertain. The DoE and lab officials have asked for $215 million for the next fiscal year, up from the $80 million scheduled before problems were detected.

Plunging morale at the ignition facility comes at a time when lab workers at Livermore, and at Los Alamos and Sandia national laboratories in New Mexico, are under intense scrutiny over security concerns, particularly with nuclear weapons programs. Most security investigations have targeted Asian and Asian-American scientists, a result of the arrest in December of Los Alamos physicist Wen Ho Lee, a naturalized citizen born in Taiwan, for allegedly stealing nuclear data. Houghton acknowledged that certain Livermore employees were required to take polygraph tests regarding security matters, but insisted that the budget, not security fears, influenced recent Livermore resignations.

Compounding the morale problem is the shortage of physicists and engineers and the lure of higher pay, with stock options, in the private sector.

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