The Project On Government Oversight (POGO) was stunned to learn that the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) had been awarded the “Project Management Excellence” for the National Ignition Facility (NIF) project by Secretary of the Department of Energy Dr. Stephen Chu. The award criteria stipulate the winner must have “demonstrated ‘exceptional’ results in completing a project within cost and schedule.” Given this NIF project has been derided for years by the GAO, IG, and others as perhaps the worst example of program management, it is hard to justify this special recognition.
In a letter sent to Dr. Chu, Danielle Brian, Executive Director of POGO, said, “It is extraordinary that NNSA is currently claiming the NIF construction was completed within budget, because the project is the most egregious rubber baseline—constantly changing the cost and schedule—that we have ever seen.”
In the early 1990s, the DOE sold the NIF project to Congress with a reported cost estimate of $700 million and an original completion date of 2002. With its 192 laser beams to simulate a thermonuclear burn, the NIF was to be a critical part of certifying that nuclear warheads are safe and reliable. The most recent cost estimate is $5-6 billion with a completion date of 2010—more than 600 percent over budget and at least 8 years behind schedule. Adding insult to injury, the NNSA has recently morphed the NIF’s mission into helping to solve the energy crisis.
Perhaps the NIF program office thought everyone would forget that a decade ago, they put together a statement for then-newly confirmed Secretary Bill Richardson, applauding the management of the NIF for keeping the project under budget and ahead of schedule. The Secretary was furious days later when he learned that he had been misled: the NIF construction was far over budget and at least one year behind schedule. It was a “major embarrassment” for the Secretary
At best, it is premature to give such an award until the NIF actually achieves its promise of fusion ignition with energy gain. The complexity of the program and the cost benefits leads some in the scientific community to believe it will never be achieved. Other scientists are convinced that ignition and energy gain will be easily achieved.
In any event, we suggest no champagne and ticker tape be ordered until NIF delivers on its promises without further delays and cost overruns.