World's Largest Laser Cost Doubles

A new rescue plan for the world's largest laser project would boost its ultimate cost to almost twice as much as planners originally estimated. Yesterday, Energy Secretary Bill Richardson announced a revised budget that allots at least an additional $1 billion to the embattled facility. Lab officials welcome the news, but members of Congress--who must approve the new spending--are grumbling about the huge overruns on the project.

The National Ignition Facility (NIF) at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California is designed to focus 192 powerful laser beams on a pellet-sized target. Designers hope it will allow them to test the feasibility of fusion energy and simulate nuclear weapons without actual testing. The project ran into serious problems last year, however, after Livermore officials revealed that technical glitches and management missteps would delay the project beyond its scheduled 2003 completion date and drive up costs (Science, 31 March, p. 2389).

Yesterday, Richardson said he will ask Congress to add up to $245 million to NIF's budget over the next two fiscal years, and put off NIF completion until 2008. That is less than Livermore officials had hoped to get, and would raise NIF's total construction costs to more than $2 billion--well above the original forecast of $1.2 billion.

NIF critics want Congress to scale back the project. "The idea that throwing more money at NIF will resolve its problems is flawed," says Marylia Kelly of Tri Valley Cares, a Livermore, California-based citizens group. And one House aide says, "jaws are dropping all over Capitol Hill" due to the overruns. The House Science Committee is considering holding hearings on the project next month.