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Highlights

In March 2009, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), a separately organized agency within the Department of Energy, completed construction of the National Ignition Facility (NIF). NNSA considers NIF critical to its stockpile stewardship program to ensure the safety and reliability of the nation's nuclear weapons, absent live nuclear testing. NIF is intended to simulate the extreme temperatures and pressures of "ignition"--an atomic fusion event propagating a nuclear explosion--for the first time in a laboratory. GAO was asked to examine (1) the extent to which NNSA has addressed key scientific and technical challenges that could prevent ignition at NIF; (2) whether NNSA has an effective approach for managing the cost, schedule, and scope of ignition-related activities; and (3) potential impacts to NNSA's stockpile stewardship program if ignition at NIF is not achieved, as planned, between fiscal years 2010 and 2012. To conduct this work, GAO analyzed relevant budgets, reports, and plans, and interviewed NNSA and national laboratory officials and independent experts.

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Recommendations

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
National Nuclear Security Administration 1. To address the scientific and technical challenges and management weaknesses, and to enhance the NIC review committee's effectiveness, the Administrator of NNSA should direct the Director of the Office of Inertial Confinement Fusion and National Ignition Facility Project to have the NIC review committee report to, and receive direction from, NNSA's Director of the Office of Inertial Confinement Fusion and National Ignition Facility Project on its review activities, instead of reporting to Lawrence Livermore's laboratory Director. Alternatively, the Director of NNSA's Office of Inertial Confinement Fusion and National Ignition Facility Project could appoint a separate review committee, serving a substantially similar function as the NIC review committee, to advise and report to that office's Director.
Closed - Implemented
The Office of Inertial Confinement Fusion and National Ignition Facility (NIF) Project appointed a National Ignition Campaign (NIC) Review Panel to conduct an ongoing technical review of NIC's efforts to achieve ignition at NIF. From October 2010 to November 2012, the panel held seven meetings and conducted detailed examinations of NIC's work; provided advice and feedback; and helped identify barriers to achieving ignition or needed changes to NIC's experimental program to help overcome scientific and technical challenges. The panel, which included active nuclear weapons scientists and other experts, reported to NNSA, including to the NNSA Administrator and to the Assistant Deputy Administrator for Defense Programs. NNSA completed the NIC at the end of Fiscal Year 2012, though it did not achieve its chief scientific goal of ignition. With the completion of NIC, NNSA also disbanded the NIC Review Committee and refocused NIF plans.
National Nuclear Security Administration 2. To address the scientific and technical challenges and management weaknesses, and to enhance the NIC review committee's effectiveness, the Administrator of NNSA should direct the Director of the Office of Inertial Confinement Fusion and National Ignition Facility Project to involve the NIC review committee, or the separately appointed review committee, in NIC's critical decision-making, such as evaluating experiments planned on NIF, identifying potential weaknesses to the experimental plan, and recommending, if necessary, alternative approaches to address scientific and technical challenges.
Closed - Implemented
The Office of Inertial Confinement Fusion and National Ignition Facility (NIF) Project appointed a National Ignition Campaign (NIC) Review Panel to conduct an ongoing technical review of NIC's efforts to achieve ignition at NIF. From October 2010 to November 2012, the panel held seven meetings and conducted detailed examinations of NIC's work; provided advice and feedback; and helped identify barriers to achieving ignition or needed changes to NIC's experimental program to help overcome scientific and technical challenges. The panel, which included active nuclear weapons scientists and other experts, reported to NNSA, including to the NNSA Administrator and to the Assistant Deputy Administrator for Defense Programs. NNSA completed the NIC at the end of Fiscal Year 2012, though it did not achieve its chief scientific goal of ignition. With the completion of NIC, NNSA also disbanded the NIC Review Committee and refocused NIF plans.
National Nuclear Security Administration 3. To address the scientific and technical challenges and management weaknesses, and to enhance the NIC review committee's effectiveness, the Administrator of NNSA should direct the Director of the Office of Inertial Confinement Fusion and National Ignition Facility Project to ensure that the review committee adequately involves nuclear weapons scientists that can help evaluate whether NIC's approach is appropriate for creating a platform for future stockpile stewardship experiments. This can involve increasing the number of nuclear weapons scientists on the NIC review committee or sharing information with weapons scientists at the national laboratories.
Closed - Implemented
The Office of Inertial Confinement Fusion and National Ignition Facility (NIF) Project appointed a National Ignition Campaign (NIC) Review Panel to conduct an ongoing technical review of NIC's efforts to achieve ignition at NIF. From October 2010 to November 2012, the panel held seven meetings and conducted detailed examinations of NIC's work; provided advice and feedback; and helped identify barriers to achieving ignition or needed changes to NIC's experimental program to help overcome scientific and technical challenges. The panel, which included active nuclear weapons scientists and other experts, reported to NNSA, including to the NNSA Administrator and to the Assistant Deputy Administrator for Defense Programs. NNSA completed the NIC at the end of Fiscal Year 2012, though it did not achieve its chief scientific goal of ignition. With the completion of NIC, NNSA also disbanded the NIC Review Committee and refocused NIF plans.
National Nuclear Security Administration 4. To address the scientific and technical challenges and management weaknesses, and to better manage NIC, the Administrator of NNSA should direct the Director of the Office of Inertial Confinement Fusion and National Ignition Facility Project, with assistance from the NIC participants, to develop an execution plan to establish NIC's cost, schedule, and scope.
Closed - Implemented
In September 2010, NNSA and the NIC Participants issued a revised execution plan. The plan, which was approved by all the NIC participants and the appropriate NNSA officials, established NIC's cost, schedule, and scope. According to NNSA documents, subsequent changes to NIC's cost, schedule, or scope were approved in writing by the appropriate officials, as required by the plan.
National Nuclear Security Administration 5. To address the scientific and technical challenges and management weaknesses, and to better manage NIC, the Administrator of NNSA should direct the Director of the Office of Inertial Confinement Fusion and National Ignition Facility Project, with assistance from the NIC participants, to ensure that all NIC participants and appropriate NNSA officials have formally approved the execution plan.
Closed - Implemented
In September 2010, NNSA and the NIC Participants issued a revised execution plan. The plan, which was approved by all the NIC participants and the appropriate NNSA officials, established NIC's cost, schedule, and scope. According to NNSA documents, subsequent changes to NIC's cost, schedule, or scope were approved in writing by the appropriate officials, as required by the plan.
National Nuclear Security Administration 6. To address the scientific and technical challenges and management weaknesses, and to better manage NIC, the Administrator of NNSA should direct the Director of the Office of Inertial Confinement Fusion and National Ignition Facility Project, with assistance from the NIC participants, to ensure that all changes to NIC's cost, schedule, and scope receive formal written approval from appropriate officials, as required.
Closed - Implemented
In September 2010, NNSA and the NIC Participants issued a revised execution plan. The plan, which was approved by all the NIC participants and the appropriate NNSA officials, established NIC's cost, schedule, and scope. According to NNSA documents, subsequent changes to NIC's cost, schedule, or scope were approved in writing by the appropriate officials, as required by the plan.

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