Reports Blame Mismanagement for NIF Delay and Cost Overruns

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Publication date: 
19 January 2000


"No one gets a passing grade on NIF management: not the DOE's Office of Defense Programs, not the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and not the University of California." --SEAB National Ignition Facility Laser System Task Force

Last summer, Energy Secretary Bill Richardson - and the public - learned that the construction of the National Ignition Facility (NIF) at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory was over budget and behind schedule. In response to these revelations, reviews of the project have been conducted by a task force of the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board (SEAB), and a special committee of the University of California President's Council on the National Laboratories. (The University of California manages Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.) Both reports came to many of the same conclusions: they agreed that the problems arose because of inadequate management by all the players involved, and that while technical challenges to the project still remain, they are not insurmountable. Both reports are cautiously optimistic about project management changes that have recently been implemented.

The NIF is a centerpiece of DOE's stockpile stewardship program to maintain the safety and reliability of the nation's nuclear weapons by computerized simulation rather than nuclear testing. It is designed to use lasers to achieve fusion and the high energy density conditions that exist when nuclear weapons are detonated, so weapon performance can be studied without testing. Initial plans called for completion of the facility by the end of FY 2003 at a total estimated cost of $1.2 billion.

The University of California President's Council National Ignition Facility Review Committee was chaired by Steve Koonin, vice president and provost of the California Institute of Technology. The committee's report (November 1999; 13 pages; can be accessed at found that "management deficiencies, rather than technical problems, are the root cause of the cost and schedule overruns." The committee finds that Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, the University of California, and DOE all share the blame for poor management of the project. The report identifies a series of management failings, including insufficient technical definition and implementation plan; lack of effective system engineering and integration; inadequate mechanisms to measure progress; lack of management attention at senior levels; a do-it-yourself mentality that discouraged outside expertise; insufficient communication mechanisms; and an ineffective review process.

The committee described three "contributing factors" to the overruns. First, the contingency funding of 15 percent was too low for a project of this size and complexity (the committee recommends about 30 percent). Secondly, the baseline cost and schedule were established too early, before the technical definition and implementation plan were complete. Finally, some project activities suffered shortfalls in funding. The report estimates a 12-18 month delay in design of some of the laser equipment, additional delay in design of the laser and target system infrastructure, and corresponding cost growth on the order of 30 percent of the total estimated cost (or about $400 million). Construction of the conventional facility is about 70 percent complete and remains on schedule.

The committee offers five recommendations to improve management of the project: Roles and responsibilities of the parties must be clearly defined; the lab director must "take ownership" of, and pay greater attention to, the project; the lab should appoint an Associate Director or similar "champion" for the NIF; a "surprise-free environment" should be established by implementing formal communications mechanisms and independent review; and the project must be managed according to sound management principles and must develop appropriate documentation.

The Interim Report of the SEAB National Ignition Facility Laser System Task Force, dated January 2000, runs 38 pages and can be accessed at The Task Force was chaired by John McTague, former vice president for technical affairs at the Ford Motor Company. According to this report, "The Task Force has not uncovered any technical or managerial obstacles that would prevent the completion of the NIF laser system. Nevertheless, serious challenges and hurdles remain. The NIF Task Force believes, however, that with appropriate corrective actions, a strong management team, additional funds, an extension of the schedule and recognition that NIF is, at its core, a research and development project, the NIF laser system can be completed."

The report notes that a number of improvements have been made recently to the project, which it finds "encouraging." The Task Force will "continue to review these matters," with a final report expected later this spring. The interim report's findings, and the related recommendations, are summarized below:

1. The program and project management organizations failed to implement management procedures and processes "commensurate with a major research and development project;" thus, DOE's "Office of Defense Programs should implement a project management review process similar to that long utilized by Office of Science for all major projects."
2. The role of the lab director in NIF management is undefined and project responsibility and leadership are "diffused." The lab director "needs to take visible and unambiguous 'ownership' of the NIF project."
3. The players (the Office of Defense Programs, DOE Oakland Operations Office, the lab, the university and DOE) "lack clearly defines roles, responsibilities and lines of authority."
Consequently, accountability has suffered, and the entities need to "clearly define and articulate the respective roles, responsibilities, lines of authority and accountability of all participants."
4. A 15-percent contingency factor "may be appropriate for an apartment building, but it is not appropriate for a technologically intensive project." Thus "Secretary Richardson should be prepared to increase the contingency" to 30-35 percent.
5. Early design decisions "have removed much robustness from the system design and may have increased its actual cost." Design robustness and R&D funding should therefore be increased, and R&D activities should be integrated into the total project management.
6. "The project needs a well-defined ending point." Project milestones should be established and project management should "clearly establish the point at which construction and testing ends and NIF operations begin."
7. The Task Force "agrees that, with the appropriate research and development," reliable NIF operation "at laser output fluence of 3 J/cm-2" is "a reasonable projection." It recommends that "the original NIF performance goals should be maintained, but reached in a phased manner."

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