National Ignition Facility:

Management and Oversight Failures Caused Major Cost Overruns and Schedule Delays

RCED-00-141: Published: Aug 8, 2000. Publicly Released: Aug 16, 2000.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO provided information on the Department of Energy's (DOE) National Ignition Facility (NIF), focusing on the: (1) magnitude of NIF's cost and schedule overruns; (2) reasons for these cost and schedule problems; (3) effects of NIF's cost and schedule on other weapons and science programs; and (4) DOE's and Lawrence Livermore's actions to correct these problems.

GAO noted that: (1) DOE and Lawrence Livermore now estimate that NIF will eventually cost about $3.3 billion and will be completed in 2008; (2) these new estimates mean NIF will cost over $1 billion more than originally planned and take 6 years longer to complete; (3) however, on the basis of analysis of figures from DOE and Lawrence Livermore, GAO estimates that NIF's cost is closer to $4 billion because DOE's estimate does not include all research and development costs from other program areas that are needed to support NIF; (4) furthermore, since significant research and development activities to support NIF remain to be completed and technical uncertainties persist, the cost of NIF could grow even higher and completion could take even longer; (5) NIF's cost increases and schedule delays were caused by a combination of poor Lawrence Livermore management and inadequate DOE oversight; (6) since NIF's beginning, the absence of effective independent reviews has enabled the project's costs and schedules to grow undetected by DOE program officials at headquarters and at Lawrence Livermore; (7) furthermore, none of these reviews has examined both the construction project and its supporting research and development activities; (8) paying for NIF's cost overruns has broad implications for DOE's nuclear weapons program; (9) the Secretary of Energy has said he wants to complete NIF but will not ask Congress for additional appropriations to pay for NIF's cost increases; (10) instead, he announced that the Department will pay for NIF's overruns by reallocating funds from within DOE's existing nuclear weapons budget; (11) however, DOE has not fully disclosed which programs will be cut to pay for NIF, nor when or how this will be done; (12) nor has DOE evaluated how this reallocation will affect components of the nuclear weapons program that might be eliminated, reduced in scope, or extended in order to fund NIF; (13) DOE tried but was unable to secure agreement among its three weapons laboratories that will use NIF--Lawrence Livermore, Los Alamos, and Sandia; (14) consequently, DOE's June "interim" cost and schedule plan was not developed by taking into account the many potential impacts on DOE's nuclear weapons program; and (15) in addition, because DOE has not determined how it intends to pay for NIF's cost overruns, the potential impacts on other science programs are unknown.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2003 and 2004, two independent committees assessed NIF's technical performance and project performance against established cost and schedule baselines. Each review committee was comprised of experts from government, industry, and universities who had no responsibility for NIF. According to the NIF project director, these technical reviews met the general criteria of independence. Prior to these outside reviews, NIF's Program Review Committee conducted several reviews that, according to NIF's project director, resulted in intense discussions of technical issues even though several committee members had connections with the NIF project.

    Recommendation: To ensure that DOE has an effective independent review of NIF, the Secretary of Energy should arrange for an outside scientific and technical review of NIF's remaining technical challenges as they relate to the project's cost and schedule risks.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOE's Fiscal Year (FY) 2005 Budget Justification, released in February 2004, showed that NNSA has extended the National Ignition Facility's (NIF) target date for demonstrating ignition from FY 2010 to FY 2014. Despite this 4-year delay, NNSA will be able to use NIF's capabilities during the interim to conduct critical Stockpile Stewardship research. However, the extension will effectively reduce adverse budgetary impacts on other Stockpile Stewardship programs because NIF's program costs have substantially exceeded NNSA's estimate in 2000.

    Recommendation: To ensure an appropriate balance between NIF and the rest of the nuclear weapons program, the Secretary of Energy should not reallocate funds from the nuclear weapons program to NIF until DOE: (1) evaluates the impact of its cost and schedule plan, as well as any other options for NIF, on the overall nuclear weapons program; and (2) certifies that the selected NIF cost and schedule plan will not negatively affect the balance of the Stockpile Stewardship Program.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy


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