Accounting Problem

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Science  18 May 2001:
Vol. 292, Issue 5520, pp. 1277
DOI: 10.1126/science.292.5520.1277b

The debate over the National Ignition Facility (NIF) has ignited again. At a Washington, D.C., press conference last week, former federal budget examiner Robert Civiak said the Department of Energy (DOE) has vastly understated the cost of NIF, a laser megaproject under construction at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California.

Last year, some members of Congress tried to kill NIF after DOE admitted that construction costs had spiraled from $1.2 billion to $3.4 billion (Science, 5 May 2000, p. 782). But consultant Civiak, a researcher who once tracked NIF for the White House budget office, says the real total is closer to $5 billion. In a report released by the Natural Resources Defense Council and Tri-Valley CAREs, two groups that oppose the project, Civiak concludes that the DOE estimate ignores some costly items, including more than half a billion dollars for fabricating and positioning the laser's targets. Overall, he estimates that operating NIF for 30 years will cost $34.5 billion, compared to DOE's estimate of $6.7 billion.

Livermore's Susan Houghton says Civiak's analysis is “silly.” NIF's budget shouldn't be saddled with the full cost of targets, for instance, she argues, because other projects will use them, too. Congress is expected to take another look at NIF's costs later this year.

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