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When Peer Review Fails
The Roots of the National Ignition Facility (NIF) Debacle

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  • The publicly acknowledged estimated cost to complete an ignition-ready facility (laser system, target chamber, and cryogenic target) has risen steadily, from $400 million (NAS 1990) to $1.2 billion (DOE 1997) to $1.6 billion (NAS 1997) to $2.1 billion (DOE April 2000) to $4 billion (GAO 02 June 2000).

  • According to General Accounting Office (GAO), some of these historical cost increases are more apparent than real, and can be accounted for by the DOE/Livermore practice of concealing NIF-related R&D funds in less visible budget categories. Since breaking ground on the project in June 1997, an "apples to apples" comparison shows that construction project costs have increased from $1.2 to $2.2 billion, and that NIF supporting R&D costs for the period 1995-2004, buried within DOE's overall budget for "Readiness in Technical Base and Facilities," have increased from $1 billion to $1.8 billion, yielding the new total acquisition cost estimate of $4 billion. [1]

  • Four billion dollars may not be the final cost ceiling for the NIF. GAO staff note that project expenditures to develop the NIF ignition target, and the required capabilities to fabricate, cool, position, and diagnose it, will continue at least until the scheduled completion of construction in 2009, adding to the cost of an "ignition-ready" facility, but DOE has not yet provided estimates of these outyear costs.

  • The initial safe operating point for the NIF Laser System (i.e. the threshold for fluence damage to the laser optics) has been reduced by 60%, thereby reducing the beam energy that can be delivered routinely to the target chamber to 0.6 MJ, one-third of the project's original 1.8 megajoule (MJ) specification, and one-half of the minimum energy that NIF project scientists calculate is needed to drive a lower temperature ICF target design to ignition.

  • Assuming the current ICF program operating cost of $226 million per year, and that a facility as expensive as NIF will operate for 25 years, the total "life cycle" cost of the NIF will be at least $10 billion, and in light of the additional optics R&D requirements, probably more.

  • Substantial uncertainty persists regarding the technical feasibility and cost of upgrading and operating the NIF Laser System at the energy level specified for fusion ignition experiments, and with the final spot sizes (beam focusing) required for both fusion ignition and stockpile stewardship experiments;

  • The NIF Project lacks an approved baseline target design that both ignites in computer simulations and can be fabricated with known production techniques, as well as proven prototype equipment for cooling, injecting, and diagnosing such ignition targets;

  • The NIF Project relies on computer modeling predictions of ignition generated by an ICF code, LASNEX, that cannot reproduce the results of actual underground fusion capsule experiments, raising fundamental questions about the NIF Project's heavy reliance on computer modeling rather than empirical data to establish its performance criteria;

    Elements of the NIF Project have been reviewed by various outside committees over the years, but most of these reviews were compromised by their lack of independence from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and DOE, a lack of balance among the panel members, and on occasion blatant conflicts-of-interest and deliberate "stacking" of the committee.

  • Neither the NIF Project, nor the LASNEX ICF code use to establish NIF's performance parameters, have ever been subjected to a probing, comprehensive scientific peer review, involving a wide range of expert viewpoints and encompassing the classified data base from underground ICF experiments (Halite-Centurion) conducted in the 1980's.

  • Roughly a factor of 100 separates the 200 kilojoules of X-ray energy that prospectively would be absorbed by a NIF-scale target from the smallest amount (20 MJ) that produced ignition and modest gain from larger ICF capsules in underground experiments during the 1980's, leading to sharply divergent assessments within the weapons laboratory community on whether NIF has been designed to operate in the correct energy regime for achieving fusion. [2]


(1) Congress should defer funding for completion of the current NIF construction project and require DOE/LLNL to build, thoroughly test, and certify the performance of a complete working prototype of a single NIF beamline, followed if warranted by an 8-beam "bundle," that meet all the nominal specifications needed for ignition experiments, before proceeding with deployment of a 48-, 96-, or the full 192-beam system;

(2) Existing optical and other component procurement contracts should be immediately revised and terminated at the number needed for 8, or at most 48 beams;

(3) Congress should immediately direct DOE to request the National Academy of Sciences to convene an inclusive, comprehensive, and rigorous 18-month peer review of the state of ICF science and technology supporting the NIF project, including:

  • A thorough reexamination of the Halite-Centurion results and their implications for the likelihood of achieving ignition with NIF and alternative driver technologies;

  • A probing review of the physics models and assumptions used in the LASNEX code to predict ignition and establish NIF target/driver parameters;

  • An unbiased reassessment of the utility of a fusion ignition facility, relative to other efforts, for the core stockpile stewardship functions of maintaining nuclear stockpile reliability and safety, thereby setting sensible resource constraints within which any future NIF/ICF program, if warranted, could be pursued in balance with other elements of the Stockpile Stewardship Program.

  • The relative utility and cost-effectiveness of a scaled-down NIF (e.g. 48 beams) as a "Non-Ignition Facility" for stockpile stewardship experiments in weapons science.

  • The implications of a prolonged and relatively open search for ICF ignition, conducted on a facility otherwise dedicated to weapons physics research, on the proliferation of science and technology for thermonuclear weapons.

  • A probing and candid assessment of the progress -- or lack thereof -- in the science and technology supporting the laboratory microfusion effort, including techniques for limiting optical damage; diagnosing, understanding, and controlling laser-plasma and hydrodynamic instabilities; 3-D computational simulations; ignition target design and fabrication; target cooling and positioning; and target chamber diagnostics.

  • The relative technical, economic, and environmental plausibility -- if any -- of credible alternative approaches to inertial fusion energy (IFE) production, and the relevance of NIF and other candidate 'ignition demonstration" facilities to further development of IFE.

  • If warranted by the findings of the review, a well-defined research agenda leading within a finite period, say five years, either to identification of an affordable approach to microfusion that could be pursued with high confidence in ignition and gain, or to a determination to leave the difficult quest for fusion ignition to future decades and invest the dollars elsewhere.

This review must necessarily involve ICF and weapons scientists from all three national weapons laboratories and from other institutions with DOE sponsorship. Conflicts of interest both real and apparent are inevitable in this situation, and the Academy and DOE must guard against bias by ensuring full and fair representation of competing scientific viewpoints, including those without current institutional sponsorship, and by the inclusion of a sufficient number of independent academic and public interest scientists without such conflicts.

Such are the outlines of a genuinely independent ICF review, the kind of broad-based peer review that is open to the widest possible range of informed opinion but beholden to none, the kind of review that the National Research Council should have conducted long ago, and more than once. Fortunately, it is never to late to seek the truth, and the nation, DOE, and ultimately even Livermore Laboratory itself will be the stronger for it.

For more information, contact:
Christopher E. Paine
Senior Researcher, NRDC Nuclear Program
(804) 244-5013

Dr. Matthew McKinzie
Senior Scientist, NRDC Nuclear Program
(202) 289-2363

Dr. Thomas B. Cochran
Director, NRDC Nuclear Program
(202) 289-2372


1. GAO staff interview, 06/02/00.

2. For further discussion and references on this point see the section of this report entitled, "How Did DOE's Quest for Ignition Culminate in the NIF?"

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