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Congress OKs Big Funding Hike for Controversial Laser Fusion Project

Science: Livermore Laboratory will get $199 million next year for nuclear weapons research, despite delays and management problems.

October 06, 2000|ROBERT LEE HOTZ | TIMES SCIENCE WRITER

Congress agreed this week to almost triple funding for a controversial laser fusion project at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory to partially offset $1 billion in cost overruns at the experimental nuclear weapons effort.

The agreement to increase funding for the National Ignition Facility (NIF) next year to $199 million came despite opposition from several members of Congress who are angry over delays, technical troubles and management gaffes at the $4-billion project.

Sixty times more powerful than any laser ever built, the NIF laser is designed to focus 192 beams on a single tiny target in the hope of igniting fusion--thus allowing scientists to experiment with the forces in a nuclear explosion without ever detonating a bomb. The laser project is the keystone of an effort to maintain the safety and reliability of the aging U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile.

Part of the newly appropriated money--$69 million--will be withheld until the Department of Energy certifies to Congress that the program can be completed on time and on budget. At least $25 million is to be diverted from other nuclear weapons work at the Livermore Laboratory.

"We're very pleased that Congress has recommended additional funding for the National Ignition Facility and that the project should move forward," said Livermore director Bruce Tarter. "This action validates the extensive peer reviews of NIF that the Department of Energy has spearheaded over this past year--all of which have been quite positive."

Those reviews were prompted by public disclosure last year of serious problems at the controversial facility. Federal auditors at the U.S. General Accounting Office later concluded the laser project was more than $1 billion over budget and could be up to six years late, with no guarantee that it would ever work as promised.

The auditors reported that officials at the Energy Department and Livermore knowingly downplayed NIF's growing technical problems, even altering an outside contractor's evaluation to give the laser project glowing reviews last year. Project manager Michael Campbell, an influential laser physicist, resigned when it was discovered that he had never completed his doctorate.

"This [funding] decision sends the message that if you lie about the success of your project or you mismanage taxpayer money, Congress will punish you by increasing your funding," said Keith Ashdown, communications director at a private Washington-based watchdog group called Taxpayers for Common Sense, which has been tracking the project's problems.

Project opponents in the Senate tried and failed to cap construction funding. They also failed to force an independent review of the project by the National Academy of Sciences. The funding is part of an energy and water bill, approved by the House and Senate, that now awaits President Clinton's signature.

"This is too much money to spend on a project that is out of control," said Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who sought to limit the laser's funding. "This is the time to slow down, conduct some independent studies, reconsider how we can best maintain the nuclear weapons stockpile and whether this risky program is really critical to that effort.

"Instead," Harkin said, "we are saying 'full steam ahead.' "

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