…as Livermore blasted for laser project

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Mismanaged? NIF construction has been $300 million over budget. Credit: LLNL

A review committee set up by the University of California has concluded that mismanagement and poor planning are to blame for significant cost overruns and delays in construction of the National Ignition Facility (NIF), the world's largest laser, at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

The ten-member committee, headed by Steve Koonin, provost of the California Institute of Technology, was set up by the University of California's President's Council to examine construction problems at NIF that were identified in August (see Nature 401, 101; 1999). In a 12-page report issued last week, it sharply criticized managers at the Livermore laboratory — which is run by the university on behalf of the US Department of Energy (DoE) — as well as the department itself.

“The project faces serious issues because the DoE and the laboratory violated some basic principles of sound project management,” says the panel. “Neither the laboratory, the university nor the DOE had an effective and critical project review process in place.”

NIF, the centrepiece of US efforts to ensure the continued viability of its nuclear weapons in the absence of a testing programme was initially to have cost $1.2 billion and be completed in 2003. But cost overruns of $300 million are now expected, with completion delayed by at least 18 months.

The review committee endorsed the technical feasibility of the project, which has 192 lasers for use in nuclear, fusion and/or scientific experiments. But construction management was frequently deficient — project planning significantly underestimated contingencies, the committee said, and baseline goals were set too early.

The laboratory also had an ill-conceived “do-it-yourself mentality” that discouraged the use of outside expertise, the committee says, and “there were multiple failures at multiple levels that kept appropriate people ignorant of these concerns”. The laboratory's director needs to “take ownership” of management of the project, it adds.

DoE secretary Bill Richardson had told lab employees and the media gathered for the unveiling of the NIF target chamber last June that the project was on budget and on time. Even then, however, scientists at the laboratory and officials at the DoE knew there were serious problems. Officials now say they failed to brief Richardson adequately before his speech.

Bruce Tarter, Livermore's director, last week admitted past “weaknesses in the project's management structure”, and said that significant steps — including replacing management, reorganizing teams and rededicating lab personnel —have already been taken to address the issues identified by the committee and internal reviews.

The DoE said in a statement that the review provided evidence that the university was committed to getting the NIF project back on track.

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Dalton, R. …as Livermore blasted for laser project. Nature 402, 449 (1999) doi:10.1038/44904

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