Energy Dept: Laser Cost Doubled

Thursday, August 17th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) — Development of the world's most powerful laser to monitor the nation's nuclear arsenal without testing — a project already dogged by cost overruns and delays — could cost nearly three times its original $1 billion price tag, congressional auditors say.

The Energy Department told the General Accounting Office the cost of the laser project at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California has soared to $2.2 billion — twice what it was predicted to be in 1995. But the GAO, the investigative arm of Congress, said a more accurate total is closer to $3 billion.

As recently as January, its price was said to be $1.5 billion.

The soon-to-be-released GAO report says that the project has been mismanaged by Lawrence Livermore and that technical problems as well as unexpected expenses and scheduling delays were withheld from outside reviewers and the Energy Department.

While costs have soared, the project has lagged far behind schedule, with its completion date now put at 2008, six years behind schedule.

The laser, which is to be the most sophisticated and powerful ever developed, is a key part of the department's nuclear weapons stewardship program. The project consists of 192 laser beams used to simulate a nuclear explosion. The beams are to shoot energy onto a single target, recreating in a laboratory the thermonuclear conditions caused by a nuclear detonation.

Formally known as the National Ignition Facility, the laser is also part of a government effort to properly maintain, test and monitor the nation's nuclear weapons stockpile without resumption of actual testing of warheads and bombs at the Nevada Test Site.

A draft copy of the GAO report was obtained Wednesday by The Associated Press from two citizen groups that have been critical of the National Ignition Facility.

The GAO report attributes the cost overruns to an unrealistic original budget, poor management at Lawrence Livermore and ``an absence of effective independent reviews'' and oversight by the Energy Department.

GAO investigators also found that senior managers of the laser project withheld their concerns about the technical and management problems from the Energy Department and the director of the Livermore Lab, which is operated by the University of California.

Energy Secretary Bill Richardson last year ordered a review of the laser project after he learned of a $350 million cost overrun.

Since then, the costs have continued to soar, with the Energy Department sending a $2.2 billion cost estimate to Congress in June, according to the GAO report.

But the GAO said the actual costs exceed $2.8 billion, and warned, ``technical problems may further drive up'' the cost if they are not easily resolved.

The cost of related research and development needed for the laser to be used as planned also have increased, according the GAO, from $1 billion in 1995 to nearly $1.8 billion. The Energy Department estimates the cost increases to be more modest — no more than $140 million.

Technical problems affecting both costs and the completion schedule for the laser were first raised in the summer of 1998 and documented over a three-month period in early 1999, the GAO said. Yet, Livermore's director, Bruce Tarter, told Congress in March 1999 that the project was ``on budget and on schedule.''

In early 1999, an independent contractor also reviewed the project's progress ``and did not report any significant cost, schedule or technical'' problems, although ``over two dozen senior NIF managers knew the project faced growing problems that threatened both its costs and schedules,'' according to the GAO report.

``The GAO report shows a pattern of deception involving top managers,'' said Marylia Kelley, of Tri-Valley Cares, a citizen group in Livermore that has opposed the project. ``Officials took a see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil approach and turned a blind eye to problems they knew or suspected.''

Kelley's group and another nuclear weapons watchdog organization, Alliance for Nuclear Accountability, obtained a draft of the GAO report, which may be released as early as this week. The report had been requested by the House Science Committee.