Audit Office Slams Weapons Lab Megalaser

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has lambasted the National Ignition Facility (NIF)—the most powerful laser ever built—in a new report out today. "Scientific and Technical Challenges and Management Weaknesses," GAO says, could stymie weapon scientists' progress toward monitoring the potency of America's aging nuclear bombs. Built at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, NIF's 192 laser beams have gotten plenty of good press in the past year—not least from Science—after setting the record as the world's biggest laser. The powerful laser blasts are designed to achieve so-called ignition that would mimic the fusion that occurs when a hydrogen bomb detonates. Although GAO said the project had "made progress," it found a myriad of problems in its 10-month study of NIF. For starters, NIF is more than 25% over budget and probably won't achieve ignition by its stated 2012 target date.

Most crucial is the machine's capability to shoot at full power. Congress funded the $2 billion machine to fire at 1.8 megajoules (MJ). (The higher the energy, the larger the chance that the machine will work.) But GAO says the machine will make its first attempts at ignition at only 1.3 MJ or less and says that experts "are concerned" that energy losses would doom those experiments to failure.

At high energy, the laser damages its own optical equipment, so NIF had to shut down for 4 months to work on the problem. NIF officials say that new science suggests possible ignition at lower energy.

Other problems pervade the project. Some $50 million worth of safety work is behind schedule, and GAO blames the National Nuclear Security Administration's (NNSA) "weak oversight" for allowing Livermore "to delay critical performance requirements, construction activities and key equipment acquisitions." And NNSA failed to appoint a truly independent advisory group, GAO says, as called for in a report by the independent defense group JASON 5 years ago. NNSA concurred with the main points of the audit but raised a handful of specific objections.

GAO hints in the report that ignition by 2012 may be impossible. Over time, it says, failing to do so could damage NNSA's ability to maintain a stockpile of nukes that scientists know will work.