Richardson Slams Laser Overruns

David is a Deputy News Editor specializing in coverage of science policy, energy and the environment.

Halfway to its goal, the Department of Energy's (DOE) effort to build the world's largest laser faces management turmoil and technical problems. Energy Secretary Bill Richardson today ordered a major shakeup at DOE's National Ignition Facility (NIF), saying that he was "gravely disappointed" to learn that project managers at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California had failed to inform him of impending cost overruns and construction delays. The move comes hard on the heels of the surprise resignation of NIF's chief, physicist Michael Campbell.

DOE has spent nearly $800 million on the stadium-sized NIF complex in Livermore, California, whose 192 laser beams are supposed to ignite a tiny capsule of deuterium-tritium fuel in an effort to simulate exploding nuclear weapons. While many arms control experts say NIF is needed to ensure the reliability of the U.S. nuclear stockpile without actual tests, critics have challenged its feasibility and DOE's cost estimates (Science, 18 July 1997, p. 304). Numerous scientific and management reviews, however, have concluded that the project is on solid footing. And as recently as June, NIF officials assured Richardson that the project was "on cost and on schedule."

This week, however, Livermore officials told DOE that NIF personnel had apparently hidden some troubles, including keeping the laser building dust-free. "Denial of these kinds of problems is unacceptable," Richardson said today, noting he had asked Livermore officials to "take action against any personnel who kept these issues from the [DOE]." He also will shift major construction responsibilities from the lab to private companies and will withhold "at least" $2 million of a $5.6 million project-management payment to the University of California, which oversees Livermore. He also plans to name an independent panel to trouble-shoot problems, which he maintains are primarily managerial, "not technological--the underlying science of the NIF remains sound."

Whatever the cost of fixing NIF's problems--and some outsiders say it could be as much as $300 million--Richardson said DOE will not ask Congress for new funds, instead rechanneling existing money from other budgets. That approach could help mute criticism in Congress. But some congressional staffers are still pushing Livermore officials to explain circumstances surrounding the departure of NIF chief Michael Campbell. On 25 August he resigned from his post after an anonymous whistleblower informed Livermore brass that Campbell, who claimed to have a Ph.D. from Princeton University, had never finished his dissertation. Indeed, says one aide, Richardson's move may be just the beginning of NIF's woes.

Posted in Physics