Suit Delays NIF Construction

WASHINGTON--The Department of Energy (DOE) will delay for 11 days the start of extensive construction on a major laser facility to allow a federal court to hold a hearing on a legal challenge to the $1.2 billion project.

Managers at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California are now planning a 29 May groundbreaking on the National Ignition Facility (NIF), which would be used to conduct laser-fusion experiments and to research the viability of U.S. nuclear weapons. Minor construction is already under way, and serious excavation was to begin on 5 June. On Friday, however, DOE officials asked the lab to hold off on digging NIF's foundations until 16 June, 6 days after U.S. District Judge Stanley Sporkin plans to hold a hearing on NIF.

Local activists and environmental groups oppose the facility, which would house 192 massive lasers. The 38 groups sued DOE on 2 May to halt construction, and the 10 June hearing is to consider the plaintiffs' request for a preliminary injunction to do so. Deferring to that hearing, DOE officials are holding off on digging the facility's foundations.

That decision marks a victory for NIF opponents, but Livermore officials downplay the action. "This won't impact our construction at all," says William Hogan, deputy chief of Livermore's inertial confinement fusion program. He said minor work on utility trenches and a construction yard will continue before the hearing.