Plans for Laser Project Delayed

Sasha Talcott of The Daily Californian staff contributed to this report.

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The UC-managed National Ignition Facility will cost $1 billion more than the highest estimate and should not receive additional funding until it is independently reviewed, according to a federal report released yesterday.

The facility, currently under construction at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory,was originally slated for completion by 2002. Government officials designed the laser to serve as a cornerstone of the nation's nuclear weapons program.

Since its groundbreaking, however, cost overruns and fluctuating timetables have plagued the football field-sized laser. When complete, scientists hope the laser will simulate the conditions of a nuclear reaction, allowing the nation's stockpile to be tested without actual detonation.

The federal General Accounting Office report says the facility will not be complete until 2008, six years later than originally planned. Additionally, the laser - whose early price tag was approximately $1.1 billion - will guzzle $4 billion worth of federal money by the time it reaches working condition, the report states.

Among the many charges the study levels at both the laboratory and its owner, the U.S. Department of Energy, are "inadequate" planning of budget and construction and employing an inexperienced project manager. It also charges the laboratory's laser director of withholding information about the facility's problems from the university and the government.

Lawrence Livermore spokesperson Susan Houghton said the report's $4 billion price tag was far too high. She said the facility's construction costs ran over estimates, but that the new numbers came nowhere near the report's figure.

She added that a detailed description of the facility's costs and its funding will be released next month.

"We admit that we've had some issues, but those issues are behind us," she said. "We have a new management team in place, and we believe progress is now back on track."

So far, additional funding for the facility is slated to come from the Energy Department's nuclear weapons budget, rather than from Congress. The report, however, charges that the department has been hazy about where the money will come from and suggests that Energy Secretary Bill Richardson not divert money to the project until he commissions an independent review.

The report also accuses the Energy Department of neglecting the laser and of not properly investigating cost and schedule overruns.

In response, a department letter stated officials are well aware of the facility's problems and that the agency is prepared to conduct an external review. It charges that the auditor's cost estimates are inflated.

A spokesperson for U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Alpine, one of the study's commissioners, said Hunter had not yet reviewed it. The spokesperson would not rule out the possibility of congressional hearings on the facility's woes.

If hearings were to occur, Lawrence Livermore officials would be the second group of UC lab employees to make the trip to Washington this summer. In June, John Browne, head of the UC-managed Los Alamos National Laboratory, spent several days discussing the lab's security problems with a House subcommittee.

Houghton remained optimistic about the facility's future. Among the changes mentioned, she said the facility's manager is assuming direct responsibility for its construction, overseeing external reviews and working directly with management staff.

"NIF has undergone 85 days of review since Oct. 1," Houghton said. "You've got to say, 'Let's move forward.'"


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