Federal District Court Rules that Energy Department Reviews of Fusion Laser Project Violated Open-Government Law

WASHINGTON (October 1, 2002) -- A federal district judge in Washington, D.C., today found the Department of Energy guilty of violating a federal open-government law when conducting external reviews of its controversial National Ignition Facility (NIF), a $4.2 billion laser fusion project under construction in Livermore, California. (Court ruling attached, 200k PDF file.)

The ruling was the result of an October 2000 suit brought by NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) and its co-plaintiff, Tri-Valley CAREs of Livermore, California. The plaintiffs contended that the Department of Energy repeatedly violated the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA), which requires the membership of government advisory committees to be fairly balanced and their meetings and written materials to be open to the public. The NIF, based at DOE's Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, is the flagship project of the Department of Energy's Stockpile Stewardship Program, which is seeking to develop above-ground nuclear experiments and computer simulations as a replacement for underground nuclear test explosions.

The goal of the NIF project is to achieve thermonuclear ignition in the laboratory by compressing fusion materials with the amplified light from 192 high-powered lasers. Since 1995, NRDC has contended that the Livermore Laboratory and DOE has been relying on unsubstantiated performance and cost claims and biased external reviews to persuade Congress to fund the facility. NRDC and its co-plaintiff also argued that DOE consistently packs its NIF Project advisory committees with participants who have conflicts of interest or lack the requisite independence from DOE to make unbiased recommendations.

"Today's ruling vindicates NRDC's contention that DOE has continually violated FACA in its effort to avoid an open and unbiased review that would expose the serious flaws in the NIF project," said NRDC Senior Researcher Christopher Paine. "We hope that Congress will take note of this fact, take a close look at alternatives to completing the project that will reduce its huge financial and technical risks, and reconsider its priority within the overall Stockpile Stewardship Program."

Today Federal District Court Judge Emmet G. Sullivan issued an "Order and Judgment" declaring that DOE violated FACA with regard to three committees -- the August 2000 NIF "Rebaseline Committee;" and the February 2001 and November 2001 NIF "Status Review Committees" -- which the agency used to "certify" to Congress revised NIF project costs and schedules that were nearly twice as costly and twice as long as what had originally been promised.

The court further found in favor of the plaintiffs "pattern and practice" claim, declaring that the "Department of Energy is implementing a policy of convening committees to advise it on the NIF in violation of FACA (emphasis added)."

The court ordered that in the event the government defendants "distribute a copy of all, or a portion of the reports" produced by these committees," or "refer to one of these committee recommendations, either in hardcopy or any other written or electronic media, defendants must include the following statement, in at least the same size print as the rest of the text, at the beginning of the report or reference: 'Although the Committee which prepared this Report was subject to [FACA], the Department of Energy (DOE) violated FACA in forming and operating the Committee. In particular, DOE did not comply with any of FACA's requirements to ensure the committee is open to the public, balanced in terms of the points of view represented, and free of conflicts of interest.' "

The court also ordered DOE to hand over to NRDC, within 30 days, all the unclassified materials considered by these committees.

The plaintiffs in this case were represented by Howard Crystal of the Washington law firm of Meyer and Glitzenstein.

The Natural Resources Defense Council is a national, non-profit organization of scientists, lawyers and environmental specialists dedicated to protecting public health and the environment. Founded in 1970, NRDC has more than 500,000 members nationwide, served from offices in New York, Washington, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Related Documents

Federal District Court ruling, in PDF format, 200k.

Related NRDC Pages

National Ignition Facility Resource Page