Public Interest Groups Convince U.S. Court to Halt Biased Reviews of National Ignition Facility Project

WASHINGTON (March 28, 2001) - A federal district court ruling today that halted government reviews of the $4 billion National Ignition Facility Project is a major victory for NRDC (the Natural Resources Defense Council), which has been calling for an open and unbiased review of the project since its inception in 1996. Specifically, NRDC and its coplaintiff, Tri-Valley CAREs of Livermore, California, contended that the Department of Energy has repeatedly violated the Federal Advisory Committee Act, which requires government advisory committees to include representatives from all sides and that the process be open to the public. The NIF Project, based at the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, is a part of the Department of Energy's Stockpile Stewardship program, which ensures the reliability of U.S. nuclear weapons.

The goal of the NIF Project is to achieve thermonuclear ignition in the laboratory by compressing fusion materials with the light from 192 high-powered lasers. NRDC says the project is a boondoggle that is incapable of achieving its goal. NRDC and its coplaintiff further argued that the DOE regularly packs its NIF Project advisory committees with participants who have conflicts of interest and therefore cannot make unbiased recommendations.

"Today's order 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."

The court today issued an order preliminarily enjoining the Department of Energy "from further funding, supporting, or permitting work on developing" the recommendations of the DOE's current NIF Status Review Committee. The court also barred DOE from "preparing a consensus report derived from [the recent] set of meetings" of the committee. If DOE responds to Congress about the committee work to date, the court ordered the agency to include a disclaimer noting that it "did not comply with any of FACA's requirements to ensure the committee is open to the public, balanced in points of view represented, and not inappropriately influenced by any special interest."

Federal District Court Judge Emmet G. Sullivan found that the plaintiffs "have demonstrated the requisite likelihood of success on their claims that the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA) applies" to both the August 2000 NIF "Rebaseline Validation Review," which DOE used last fall to obtain continued funding for the troubled project, and to the current "NIF Status Review Committee," whose findings DOE was hoping to use to obtain release of the $69 million in additional construction funding that the Congress withheld last year, pending further review of the project's performance and various risk-reducing alternatives to completing it as originally planned.

The court rejected DOE's contention that these committees do not involve "policy issues" that bring them within the purview of FACA, and also rejected DOE's attempt to "avoid FACA" by permitting non-federal employees to participate as members, while allegedly supposedly barring them from participating in the committee's ultimate deliberations," noting that the two functions -- "information gathering" and "advice giving" -- "naturally interrelate and can only be divided artificially."