In today’s issue of Nature, scientists from the National Ignition Facility (NIF) in California are trumpeting their advance in achieving fusion ignition. However, the National Ignition Facility is just like so many other projects from the Department of Energy. It’s behind schedule and over budget.
Approved by Congress in 1993, the lab did not officially open until 2009 after numerous delays. According to a report in 2000 by the Government Accountability Office, “NIF’s cost increases and schedule delays were caused by poor Lawrence Livermore management and inadequate DOE oversight.”
The completed lab has cost taxpayers $5 billion, up from the initial estimates of $2.1 billion. It costs an additional $330 million to operate annually.
In 2009, scientists proclaimed that the NIF would achieve fusion within three years. Unsurprisingly for a government-funded project, NIF announced in 2012 that it failed to meet its goal. The New York Times said “the output of the experiments consistently fell short of what was predicted, suggesting that the scientists’ understanding of fusion was incomplete.”
NIF announced that it would spend the next three years trying to evaluate why it hadn’t achieved it. But in a moment of honesty in its report to Congress, NIF conceded “it is too early to assess whether or not ignition can be achieved at the National Ignition Facility.”
So while some news reports herald the advance at NIF as bringing it closer to achieving a sun-like power source, the project is still years away from its goal and billions over budget.
Nicole Kaeding is a budget analyst for the Cato Institute focused on federal and state spending policy. Previously, she was the state policy manager for Americans for Prosperity Foundation, where she oversaw the organization’s activities in 34 states. Before that, Nicole was a manager and bank officer at Fifth Third Bancorp for six years and a financial advisor at American Express. She graduated from Miami University with bachelors degrees in finance and political science and holds a masters degree in economics from DePaul University.