Over Budget and Behind Schedule = Management Excellence


over budget

President Barack Obama has promised to give the Department of Energy $15 billion extra each year to spend on alternative energy R&D. Enthusiasts for government R&D might want to take a look at how well current programs are going before throwing more money at the Energy Department. For example, the Washinigton Post's "In The Loop" columnist Al Kamen reports how a project that is 600 percent over budget gets recognized by Energy Secretary Steven Chu for "project management excellence." The specific program is the National Ignition Facility which aims to develop technologies that will at long last result in nuclear fusion energy production.

Kamen outlines (scroll down) the history of this project nicely:

In June 1999, then-Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, based on info from the National Ignition Facility (NIF) giant laser project , gave a speech hailing the project as on time and within its budget. A much-chagrined Richardson found a year later that the GAO concluded the NIF would cost nearly $2 billion more than originally announced and would be delayed by at least six years, the New York Times reported.

And now, newly installed Energy Secretary Steven Chu recently recognized the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), which handles the NIF, for project management excellence, something the watchdog Project on Government Oversight (POGO) says it was "shocked to learn."

"The most recent cost estimate is $5-6 billion," POGO said in a letter Wednesday to Chu, "more than 600 percent over budget and at least eight years behind schedule."

The project leaders respond that the costs and delays occurred because the NIF was revamped. Of course, this is the perennial excuse of government contractors. According to Kamen, POGO suggests…

…it might be better to hold off on the kudos until we see if the thing works.

Well, yes.

If you are a subscriber to Reason you will be getting a first look at my cover article in the next issue detailing my adventures as an energy regulator (as a callow young man) back in the 1970s and what it portends for Obama's ambitious plans for radically transforming America's energy economy through government R&D and subsidies. 

NEXT: Q: Why did Obama Pick VP To Take Lead in Picking New Supreme Court Justice? A: Biden May Be a Rule-Breaker Who Stands Up While Riding on Amtrak, Lies About Where He Eats Breakfast, Cheated in College, and Plagiarizes Nearly Every Time He Opens His Yap...

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  1. I actually have a hard time getting upset about my tax dollars going towards anything with the words “giant laser project” in the title. Maybe that’s just me.

  2. I mean, come on. GIANT LASER PROJECT.

  3. Sounds like someone’s compensating.

  4. Wait a second, X. Are we talking GIANT LASERS ON TOP OF SHARKS’ HEADS? You don’t know, do you? Until you know, best keep your fucking mouth shut, yo.

  5. I’m with X here. I’d rather my money be wasted on this than some fucking bailout for Detroit or commie journalists.

  6. Man, I feel sheepish. I thought X was complaining. My bad. (crawls back into hole)

  7. No worries, Nick.

    I know y’all a bunch of nerds up in here, ain’t be hatin’ on no GIANT LASER PROJECT

  8. Onviously, like the War on Drugs Sanity the Welfare for Physicists and Engineers Program (WPEP) just needs more money. Like installing a functioning stable democracy in Mesopotamia, soon we’ll be seeing the light at the end of tunnel. Controlled nuclear fusion is only a decade away!

  9. Wasn’t Obama just touting how he saved $17 billion in budget cuts? And now he’s going to immediately blow it all on this?


  10. Hilarious.

    Not really. But at least we get a giant laser out of the deal.

  11. Ooh! Pie Inna Sky!

    My favorite kind.

    Waitress, bring everybody a giant slice; with ice cream.

  12. Who in their right mind wants a giant laser that could eventually fall into the hands of Dick Cheney.

  13. Fortunately, James, there are no hollowed-out volcano lairs within giant laser range of the continental US, so i’m not sure where he’d put it.

  14. The specific program is the National Ignition Facility which aims to develop technologies that will at long last result in nuclear fusion energy production.

    Lovely. The Sci-Fi channel will lose the last of its cable viewers when they are all employed by the feds and watching it in the intertubez at ‘work’.

    Got that application filled out yet X? 🙂

  15. Fortunately, James, there are no hollowed-out volcano lairs within giant laser range of the continental US, so i’m not sure where he’d put it.

    Wyoming, but not in a volcano. He is craftier than even Spector.

  16. My uncle is one of these government project mechanical engineers. When he talks about how much is spent it sounds like A LOT. However, when put into the larger picture, its probably the best way to waste money.

    Last I heard, they were testing a gigantic gas cannon to propel plutonioum bullets weighing over a kilogram into “stuff” at mach 18. Giant gas cannon is no laser, but its money well wasted.

  17. Giant gas cannon is no laser, but its money well wasted.

    Having whiled away many a teenage Saturday afternoon in the garage building potato guns, i have to say i agree.

  18. Speaking as one of the legions of evil defense contrators, I’m sure there is more than a little truth to the excuse that delays were a result of (government dictated) revamps of the project. Sure, there’s likely some contractor incompetence/greed involved, too….

  19. Engineers can turn an existing invention into a marketable product on schedule and on budget (plus or minus, usually plus, about 10%).

    However, any project that has “invention” included in the schedule is doomed before it starts.

  20. Xeones | May 11, 2009, 11:32am | #
    Fortunately, James, there are no hollowed-out volcano lairs within giant laser range of the continental US, so i’m not sure where he’d put it.

    Then what the Hell am I building inside Mt Rainier? Oh fuck, I gotta go warn my crew.

  21. The problem is that for all the money spent — WE STILL DON’T HAVE ANY GIANT FRICKIN LASERS!

  22. I know how to get those libertarians to shut up with their free market yapping:

    Here kitty, kitties, nice new shiny giant laser!


    By the time you see the giant laser, it will be too late for you. Count your blessings.

  24. Actually I believe NIF is to be used for more acurate modeling of the strategic stockpile, not for exploring the possibilities of commercial fusion power. The general name for this work is ‘stockpile stewardardship’.

  25. There is something better out there than fusion for energy production.

    To begin with, what the all fusion reactors currently under development have in common is this little known nuclear methodology called fluoride molten salt technology. This was conceived and perfected by the Idaho national lab (INL) back in the 1970’s and could offer the world an abundant source of carbon free electric power today, not years from now.

    The Liquid fluoride thorium reactor (Lftr) has already been designed, prototyped and demonstrated to be safe and effective. But research on the Lftr was canceled to leave the field open for breeder reactor development when plutonium was important to the national defense, but now the government feels it is dangerous. In stead of fusion to produce nuclear heat, the Lftr burns nuclear waste; something we have plenty of.

    In his open letter to President Obama, the climatologist Dr. Jim Hanson recommended the Thorium fuel cycle and the Lftr. Dr. Edward Teller, the father of Fusion, after a lifetime of work on every aspect of nuclear technology had at the last month of his life came to this conclusion in his final study: “the LFTR is the best of all possible reactor types”. (see http://www.geocities.com/rmoir2003/moir_teller.pdf)

    The LFTR, a GEN IV reactor, which is currently in development in France, Japan, and Russia, is an elegant type of reactor that can compliment renewable energy by allowing for base load, load following, or peak power production. It can start up on any kind of nuclear fuel, bomb material, or nuclear waste product to produce very efficient, high temperature heat and at the same time breed more fuel in the bargain.

    This thrifty approach to nuclear energy greatly appeals to me, but I became even more interested in the LFTR when the details of a new patent were revealed by Dr LeBlanc (see below @ minute 53). It opens up the possibility of building a very compact but powerful reactor that can run for 30 years without refueling. With no danger of a core meltdown or runaway reaction, this air cooled reactor can be deployed anywhere and operated remotely in an unattended fully automated intrusion detecting mode and sited underground while it breeds self perpetuating new fuel within the thorium structure of the reactor itself.

    The Lftr is highly proliferation resistant. In order to get to its fuel, U233 that has been produced inside the very solid metal walls of this 200 ton reactor 1800 degree, white hot containment vessel, a proliferator must destroy and disassemble the reactor, lift its heavy reactor core out of a 100 meter deep reinforced aircraft crash proof hole in the ground, then cut the thorium containment vessel up into small pieces while enduring heavy killing gamma radiation exposure, next reprocess these reactor pieces using isotopic separation since the U233 is denatured with enough U238 to make chemical separation of bomb grade U233 impossible, and do all this without being detected. Now, this is a tall order for any bad guy and may just be an impossible assignment.

    The Lftr burns its fuel at 99.8 % efficiency. At the end of the service life of the Lftr, the reactor vessel is sent back to the factory where it is reduced to liquid fluoride salts that become the feedstock of the next new Lftr. This feedstock can only be used by the new Lftr and not for bombs. A few handfuls of waste products are held at the factory for a few hundred years to cool down before they are mined for the many precious elements contained within like platinum and iridium. Now that is what I call a safe, efficient and thrifty mode of operation!

    I thank you for the opportunity to bring this little know nuclear technology to your attention.

    To learn more see one of the following:

    Aim High

    What Fusion Wanted To Be

    Liquid Fluoride Reactors: A New Beginning for an Old Idea

  26. Blue Thunder was cooler than Airwolf.

  27. Enthusiasts for government R&D might want to take a look at how well current programs are going before throwing more money at the Energy Department.

    Honestly, I just never do understand people. The typical green-weenie thinks that govt is so good at R&D – except when it involves the military. The usual conservative position is that all the waste, fraud and abuse will be uncovered just by auditing social engineering spending (with the obvious exception of abstinence and “just say no” campaigns).

    Days like this remind me that we get the govt we deserve, and the vast majority of the U.S. really, REALLY deserves this.

  28. It’s pretty much a pure science project, there’s no way to accurately asses/project cost & schedule performance (reviewed the project for the NRC (National Research Council as an outside auditor). That’s not to say that other more mundane projects aren’t totally hosed from a mangement prospective

  29. Blue Thunder was cooler than Airwolf.

    But Jan-Michael Vincent was cooler than Roy Scheider.

  30. Epi, dude, don’t act like you don’t know that Airwolf is faster than any jet.

  31. I don’t have time to do this justice, and nobody’s reading it anyway, but NIF isn’t a giant laser. It’s hundreds of the most energetic lasers in the world. When we fire it up, they’ll all focus simultaneously on a bubble of hydrogen smaller than the head of a pin. For a fraction of a second, it will experience pressures greater than hundreds of Earth atmospheres and become hotter than the center of the sun. In short, we are building a star in the laboratory.

    C’mon, that’s SEXY!

  32. oh totally sext rabbit……like who doesnt want another star to give them skin cancer…

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