Washington, D.C. — Soaring development costs for the world’s most powerful laser could threaten a Clinton administration plan to assure the readiness of U.S. nuclear weapons in the absence of actual testing, several lawmakers said last Thursday. Congressional investigators reported that the laser project at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory will cost more than $2.8 billion, nearly triple the original price from five years ago. The Energy Department has told Congress the project will now cost at least $2.2 billion, which is 50 percent higher than its estimate only six months ago.
“These new findings significantly heighten congressional concerns about … the viability of the stockpile stewardship program,” said Rep. Floyd Spence, R-S.C., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. The project is now expected to be completed in 2008, six years later than the original target date.
The laser, the most powerful and sophisticated ever built, has 192 laser beams focusing energy on a single target, allowing nuclear scientists to simulate in a laboratory conditions in a thermonuclear explosion.
Aided by supercomputers and other technology, nuclear weapons scientists will be able to assure the reliability of America’s nuclear warheads without detonating nuclear devices. Nuclear bomb testing was halted in 1993 with assurances that data needed to assure weapon readiness eventually would be simulated in the laboratory.
A report by the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, concluded that Lawrence Livermore has mismanaged the project, formally known as the National Ignition Facility. The report also said that technical problems, unexpected expenses and scheduling delays were withheld from outside reviewers and the department.
Rep. James Sensenbrenner, chairman of the House Science Committee, which requested the report, said the cost escalation was “alarming.” He added, “The fact that DOE’s own independent reviews masked the cost overruns is even more disturbing.” The department learned only last summer that the laser program was having problems, but officials have insisted that there are major technical troubles.
Still, some lawmakers have questioned whether the program should continue. An attempt to scuttle it fell short in the House this summer. Spence said the rising cost was “extremely disquieting” and that the report “raises legitimate questions about the ability of the DOE’s science-based approach” as a substitute to nuclear testing.
The GAO attributed the cost overruns to an unrealistic original budget, poor management at Lawrence Livermore and “an absence of effective independent reviews” and department oversight.
Investigators also found that senior managers of the laser project withheld their concerns about the technical and management problems from the department and the director of the Livermore Lab, which is operated by the University of California.