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Problems Emerge with NIF Construction, Prompting External Reviews: August 1999 to Present
On August 27, 1999, E. Michael Campbell resigned as associate director for lasers at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory after faxes sent to officials at Livermore and the Department of Energy revealed that Campbell lacked a Ph.D., as The New York Times later reported. [For the record, the staff of the NRDC nuclear program liked and respected Campbell and had nothing to do with this disclosure.] Campbell was replaced as overseer of the NIF project by Dr. George Miller, LLNL's associate director for national security. Miller is reportedly the principle designer of the W84 warhead for the ground-launched cruise missile eliminated under the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty of December 1987. About 400 of these warheads remain in the U.S. inactive reserve stockpile. Livermore's director, Dr. Bruce Tarter, claimed that Campbell had resigned for strictly personal reasons; nevertheless, rumors about cost overruns and schedule delays with the NIF were growing.
On September 3, 1999 (on the eve of Labor Day weekend), the secretary of energy issued a news release (pdf file, 40.2K) entitled, "Richardson Orders Actions to Get NIF Back on Track." This news release admitted only to management problems with the NIF, as the secretary affirmed: "The problems with NIF are not technological -- the underlying science of the NIF remains sound." Significantly, Richardson said that he would withhold at least $2 million of the University of California's $5.6 million 'at risk' performance fee (the University of California is the contractor that manages the Livermore and Los Alamos nuclear weapon design laboratories) and that he would take additional costs for the NIF project out of the DOE Defense Programs and Livermore budget lines, so that "the U.S. taxpayer does not foot additional bills because of these problems." Livermore responded with its own news release (pdf file, 22.5K) revealing that Ed Moses had been appointed as NIF project manager. It is a significant aspect of the current problems with the NIF that they were not communicated to the secretary until well after they were first known by Livermore, possibly as early as the summer of 1998, but certainly by the spring of 1999.
On September 16, 1999, the House Committee on Science, chaired by F. James Sensenbrenner, Jr. (R-WI), sent a letter (pdf file, 15.5K) to the General Accounting Office asking for a review of the NIF project. Of the seven questions the committee specifically asked the GAO to answer, two pertained to Campbell's honesty over his lack of a Ph.D. degree with respect to his security clearance and salary. As of early January 2000, the GAO investigation is continuing, and Congress is expected to hear testimony in March 2000.
On October 6, 1999, Secretary Richardson requested that the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board (SEAB) conduct an independent review of the NIF project. The announcement of the appointment of the SEAB NIF Task Force, the advisory board's terms of reference for the NIF review, and biographies of the NIF Task Force members were released by DOE on November 10, 1999. The Task Force quickly convened in Livermore, California, as it had been initially asked to produce an interim report by December 1. The SEAB NIF Task Force held five days of public hearings in November and December and produced an interim report in mid-January, 2000. Transcripts of these SEAB NIF Task Force meetings are given below and include testimony from DOE officials, Livermore director Tarter, and NIF scientists and engineers.
Secretary of Energy Advisory Board NIF Task Force, meeting transcripts:
November 15, 1999, first meeting, day one (pdf file, 550K)
November 16, 1999, first meeting, day two (pdf file, 219K)
November 29, 1999, second meeting, day one (pdf file, 206K)
November 30, 1999, second meeting, day two (pdf file, 209K)
December 13, 1999, third meeting (pdf file, 240K)
On November 23, 1999, the University of California President's Council National Ignition Facility Review Committee, chaired by Steve Koonin of the California Institute of Technology, issued a press release (pdf file, 29.5K) and report (pdf file, 46.3K). Despite University of California President Robert Atkinson's request for a description of the technical issues involved in the NIF's projected cost and schedule overruns, the committee's report simply accepted Livermore's assertion that "the technical issues can be successfully handled by the Laboratory" without any further analysis. The findings in the UC NIF review were mostly concerned with management issues; but they were so favorable to the project -- having been written by known proponents of NIF and Livermore -- that several weeks later NRDC responded to the Koonin review with a letter and memo to Secretary Richardson.
On January 10, 2000, the SEAB NIF Task Force issued their draft Interim Report. The report flagged some managerial and unresolved, critical technical issues with construction of the NIF, but nevertheless found that these did not amount to "obstacles that would, in principle, prevent completion of the NIF laser system." The NIF Task Force relied heavily on a report issued on November 4, 1999, by the NIF Technical Council, chaired by John L. Emmett (pdf file, 191K). NRDC responded to the SEAB NIF Task Force draft Interim Report with a set of detailed comments, which were circulated to NIF Task Force and SEAB members prior to the transmission of the final Interim Report (pdf file, 290K) to the secretary on January 20, 1999.
A critical document that remains out of the public domain as of this writing is the revised cost and schedule for the NIF project, known as the "NIF Rebaseline." The NIF Rebaseline, in the form of a formal contractor report signed by George Miller, was reportedly handed out to the SEAB NIF Task Force members in mid-December and the Task Force was then briefed on its contents. In early February 2000, DOE will submit its budget to Congress, which will include a funding request for the NIF project. It is regrettable that the SEAB NIF Task Force is not planning to analyze the NIF Rebaseline until "late Spring 2000," as their input will then not occur in a timely fashion to inform the DOE budget debates on Capital Hill. At this point, the GAO will likely appear before Congress to testify on the progress of its NIF investigation in March, 2000.Back to contents page | Previous section
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