Small Spark at National Ignition Facility

Managers of the half-built, overbudget National Ignition Facility (NIF) at last have something to smile about. An independent panel appointed to get the laser fusion project "back on track" (Science, 10 September 1999, p. 1647) released an interim report this week that gives a qualified thumbs-up to the facility, being assembled at the Department of Energy's Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California.

The panel did find that the $1.2 billion project has "significant" managerial shortcomings, including inadequate oversight and a shortage of funds for unforeseen problems. However, says chair John McTague, a former vice president with Ford, "the panel has not uncovered any mechanical or technical obstacles that would prevent completion of NIF."

Some observers are less sanguine. The panel has underestimated the engineering challenge of getting a pellet of hydrogen to fuse and release scads of energy, argues the Natural Resources Defense Council's Chris Paine. Besides, he contends, "the report has very little credibility, because it is making an open endorsement for a system of potentially infinite cost."