Jun 4, 2007

Nuclear testing gear in doubt

LIVERMORE: Arms-control advocates claim new bomb reliability knowledge makes pricey instruments unnecessary
Article Launched: 05/31/2007 03:03:49 AM PDT

The giant lasers, X-ray machines and supercomputers called essential a decade ago for the upkeep of U.S. nuclear weapons have fallen behind schedule, yet even with those crippled or delayed capabilities, the weapons themselves are faring well, with little sign of falling apart. The Federation of American Scientists, a group formed by Manhattan Project scientists to advocate for arms control, argued in a report Wednesday that Congress needs to rethink some of the multibillion-dollar instruments promised to be provided for bomb scientists at the end of nuclear testing.

Topping the federation's target list is a stadium-size laser complex called the National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore Laboratory.

Livermore weapons scientists and federal nuclear-weapons managers have argued since the early 1990s that NIF and its reach for thermonuclear fusion with 192 laser beams are critical to ensuring operation of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Last year, for example, the head of weapons work for the U.S. Energy Department suggested scientists might be unable to say whether the bombs would keep working if NIF's lasers fail to squeeze fusion energy out of a pea-size ball of hydrogen by 2010 or so.

"Failure to achieve ignition in the long term could call into question our stockpile stewardship tools, and, therefore, the premise that the stockpile can be maintained indefinitely without nuclear testing," then-defense programs chief Tom D'Agostino wrote to several chairmen in Congress. Likewise for purchases of the world's fastest supercomputers and construction of a huge X-ray machine to peer inside imploding bomb cores -- all were needed to say whether U.S. bombs would work.

But Ivan Oelrich, a Princeton-trained chemist who heads the federation's strategic security project, says those arguments have lost their power as scientists learn more about the reliability of existing weapons -- the Cold War-vintage bombs and warheads designed without big lasers, supercomputers or machines capable of making X-ray movies in two dimensions.

"The things we were worried about -- the decline of (bomb) reliability without testing -- have not come to pass. Yet these enormously expensive programs persist," Oelrich said.

NIF originally was priced at less than $400 million but had risen to $1 billion by the time Congress agreed to build it. Even then, supporters low-balled the billion-dollar price tag because of a calculation that lawmakers otherwise never would pay for it. Livermore officials were forced to admit in 1999 that the laser was over budget and would not be completed by 2002 as promised. The General Accountability Office projects the final cost at $4 billion, with completion next year.

"NIF should have been operating years and a billion dollars ago, and it's fair to ask whether we should go forward with this machine when the whole context around it has changed," said Oelrich.

DOE officials said they had not seen the federation's report but take issue with observations about cost overruns and schedule breakdowns. Julianne Smith, spokeswoman for the department's National Nuclear Security Administration, said "it is important to keep in mind that all three of these facilities are unique, one-of-a-kind -- some that have never before been built in the world."

Oelrich doesn't expect the DOE or Congress to kill off the big laser, which Smith says is 90 percent complete.

"I live in the real world, and I admit it's very, very hard to kill these types of programs," he said.

Reach Ian Hoffman of the Oakland Tribune at 510-208-6458 or ihoffman@angnewspapers.com.


Eric said...


Here is a sobering article from Business Week. It seems that our surplus DoD material is easily bought by our enemies at a few pennies on the dollar.

If you need some parts for your F-14 fighter plane, the article above will tell you how to get them.

Anonymous said...

You mean the taxpayer has been lied to again? You mean we keep funding these multi billion dollar projects that are absolutely "critical" to our national security, get nothing in return except for being at or near 90% completion for years on in, and only after several additional injections of funding? So what else in new? Los Alamos and Livermore are like a two headed snake always on the lookout for the next big funding score.

Anonymous said...

Maybe the DOE ought to hire the Santa Fe Police to investigate this matter. I'm sure it'll get the result it wants.

Anonymous said...

Too bad we can't upload attachments to these comments -- this seems like an appropriate article to attach that phoney (but funny) answering machine message audio file for LLNL that circulates LANL periodically. Anyone know how to put audio files in a place accessible for linking from the blog?

Anonymous said...

Yea, since the Santa Fe Police are so good at coming up with the results the DOE wants, let's have them investigate this...


Nuke Beat
A source for journalists covering the U.S. nuclear weapons complex.
February 11, 2004
NIF Whistleblower Cites Code Problems
A number of stories out there today on a whistleblower suit filed by a pair of software engineers hired to write code controlling systems at NIF. The bottom line is the allegation of problems in the code itself:
From Ian Hoffman:

Two software engineers say they doubt the world's largest laser will succeed in demonstrating fusion as an energy source, given what they say was carelessness in the production of computer controls for the National Ignition Facility.

Software writers Les G. Miklosy and Luciana C. Messina allege in a whistleblower lawsuit filed Tuesday that Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory managers fired Miklosy for raising concerns about software at the heart of the giant laser.

Computers control almost everything in the$4 billion project, from firing its 192 beams to guiding the robotic arm cradling its target -- a tiny, gold cylinder containing a pea-size pellet of hydrogen.

Miklosy, a longtime software writer for NASA projects, said Livermore's NIF managers demanded custom software but veered from standard practice of first defining what the software should do and testing it off-line.

Anonymous said...

"Deja vu all over again."
-- Yogi Berra

Number 115: September 26, 2000
Richardson on the National Ignition Facility: "Back on Track"

Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson has declared that the National Ignition Facility (NIF) is "back on track" following the release of a final baseline report and an independent technical review. National Nuclear Security Administrator John Gordon agrees, saying, "We have prepared a detailed bottom-up cost and schedule to complete the NIF project.... The independent review supports our position that the NIF management team has made significant progress and resolved earlier problems." The construction cost for NIF, as determined by the NIF Project Office, is now set at $2.248 billion, with a total project- related cost of $3.5 billion. The entire project is to be completed by 2008, with a portion of the facility available beginning in 2005.
NIF will be one of the largest laser facilities in the world, consisting of a 192-beam, neodymium-doped glass laser, delivering a peak power of 500 Terawatts. NIF is seen as a key component of the U.S. program to replace underground nuclear testing, which ended eight years ago. It is being built at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL).

Secretary Richardson was not a happy man earlier this year when he told Members of Congress that "I have been very concerned about the management of this facility . . . bad management has overtaken good science. I don't want this to ever happen again." Richardson was referring to then recently revealed reports of significantly higher construction costs and a later completion date than planned. NIF construction was originally estimated at about $1.1 billion, with a total cost of approximately $2.0 billion. Full facility completion was to have been 2004.

The "Rebaseline Validation Review of the National Ignition Facility Project" (see "What's New" at www.dp.doe.gov) addresses many of Richardson's concerns. The forty experts in the committee, chaired by Kathleen A. Carlson, Manager, DOE Nevada Operations Office, met at Livermore for five days in mid-August to review the new baseline cost and schedule. "The Committee concluded that the NIF project can be completed successfully using current technology within the total cost and schedule defined in the proposed revised baseline" the report states. Later, the report declares, "The Committee commends the NIF project for making significant progress over the past nine months in developing a cost estimate that should be adequate to ensure project success." Regarding management, the report concludes, "The Committee finds that the LLNL team is now capable of managing the NIF project in the appropriate manner to assure a high probability of successful execution."

The committee did identify some issues. Under a section entitled, "Technical Systems Evaluations; Large Optics," the report states, "There is a very high level of concern on the part of the LLNL NIF senior management with regard to recruiting and maintaining sufficient technical talent to complete the NIF project." This is not due to budget problems, but rather that "recruitment in the current high-tech economic climate is very difficult." In addition, retention is challenged by higher private sector salary offers and declining morale. Recruitment and retention problems were also identified for other components of the project.

"The LLNL NIF project management team seeks to rebuild the DOE and Nation's confidence in its ability to successfully manage a project of this scope and cost," the report later states. "I am confident that we have solved the major problems identified a year ago," Richardson assured key Members of Congress in recent correspondence. The degree to which this confidence has been restored will be known within days with the release of the conference report on the FY 2001 Energy and Water Development Appropriations bill.

Richard M. Jones
Public Information Division
American Institute of Physics
(301) 209-3095

Anonymous said...

Why is the French "Laser Megajoule" (LMJ) project never mentioned in articles bashing NIF? Its also a billion dollar laser complex that will be used for nuclear weapons research and schedule for completion by 2011.

Anonymous said...

Regarding that phone message, here's a link to a transcript:


To quote:

"Thank you for calling Lawrence Livermore Natural (sic) Laboratory. None of our scientists and engineers are busy right now, so please listen carefully to the following options. Remember, your money is very important to us, so please stay on the line and you will be helped in the order of your potential funding level.

"If you are having trouble with your toaster or can opener or other simple household devices, press 1 for the engineering directorate.

"If you need to identify some little rock your kid brought home, press 2 for the energy and earth sciences directorate. ...

"If you have marginal personal skills, cannot read or write, or have recently suffered a traumatic head injury, press 4 and ask about jobs for safety engineers.

"If you are an unemployed laser physicist ... an unemployed mechanical engineer, draftsman, carpenter, shoe salesman, or have experience as a Wal-Mart greeter, press 5 and ask about the National Ignition Facility. ...

"If you need a multiply targeted supersonic reentry vehicle and matched set of thermonuclear warheads, hang up and dial 505-667-5061 for Los Alamos National Laboratory.

"Thank you."