National Ignition Facility


Abstract: The National Ignition Facility (NIF) is the world's largest and most energetic laser system. As the largest scientific construction project completed by the Department of Energy (DOE), design through commissioning were accomplished by a worldwide collaboration among governments, academia, and many industrial partners. NIF provides an experimental platform for accessing high-energy-density physics and fusions regimes that uniquely enables the DOE National Nuclear Security Administration to carry out its mission to assure the safety, security, and reliability of the nuclear stockpile. As a DOE User Facility, it will serve a broad scientific community exploring new technologies in energy production and new frontiers in astrophysics, materials science, and nuclear science. The project, led by and built at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory with principal participation of the University of Rochester Laboratory for Laser Energetics, Los Alamos National Laboratory, Sandia National Laboratories, the United Kingdom Ministry of Defense, and the French Commissariat a l‘Energie Atomique, attributes its success to excellent personnel, rigorous application of management standards, processes, and techniques promulgated by the Project Management Institute, and teamwork with its sponsor and partner participants.

This paper discusses the unique challenges involved in accomplishing this scientific project and the management approaches employed for its successful completion.


The National Ignition Facility (NIF) is a multi-megajoule laser facility constructed at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) for the Department of Energy's (DOE's) National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA). The NIF is the world's largest laser and the NNSA's largest scientific construction project.

By creating a miniature star on earth, the NIF will enable the Department of Energy to accomplish its three missions: enable a better understanding of the complex physics of nuclear weapons while supporting the moratorium on underground testing; provide scientists with the physics understanding necessary to create for the first time controlled fusion ignition with energy gain to enable new technologies for energy production; and as a national and international user facility, provide academic collaborators with the experimental capabilities to explore new frontiers in astrophysics, materials science, nuclear science, and many other scientific disciplines in a way that has never before been available.

The NIF's 192 intense laser beams direct nearly two million joules of ultraviolet laser energy in billionths-of-a-second pulses to a BB-size target. This is at least 50 times more energy than any other laser system. The NIF is the world's preeminent facility for conducting Inertial Confinement Fusion (ICF) and fusion energy research for studying matter at extreme densities and temperatures.

The project, initiated in1996, included design, conventional construction, special equipment procurement and installation, and acceptance testing. This accomplishment represented an international collaboration among governments (the U.S, United Kingdom and France), academia, many laboratory participants (principally LLNL, the University of Rochester Laboratory for Laser Energetics, Los Alamos National Laboratory and Sandia National Laboratories) and industrial partners. The total approved baseline budget was $3,502.2 million with a scheduled completion date of March 2009. Completion was demonstrated in February 2009 and certified by NNSA on March 27, 2009. The project was completed ahead of schedule and under budget, costing $3,500.5M.

DOE's directive for the acquisition of capital assets, currently known as DOE O 413.3A (DOE, 2006) relies heavily on the concepts and processes outlined in the Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK®) (PMI, 2008) as well as ANSI/EIA 748 (ANSI, 2007). The Department of Energy established a formal relationship with the Project Management Institute to provide a professional and best-in-class framework upon which it engineered its project management approach. LLNL's NIF team incorporated this order and the underlying practices and processes outlined by the PMBOK® as the basis for the successful planning and execution of the project to meet the sponsor and larger stakeholder community requirements and expectations. This was key to ensuring that the project would be completed as planned with the required scope and within the agreed to cost and schedule envelope.

Constructing NIF

Thousands of engineers, scientists, and technicians have been involved in the NIF over the last 16 years, first in proposing that such a massive laser might even be possible and later in designing the specialized equipment housed inside, much of it the first of its kind. Hundreds more construction personnel, employees of equipment suppliers, and testing and commissioning experts helped bring the NIF dream to reality.

When LLNL broke ground for the NIF's conventional facilities (the building and supporting infrastructure), the team knew this construction was the largest the Laboratory had ever attempted, and it had to be complete by the end of September 2001. But the construction schedule did not anticipate the November 1997, El Niño rains that flooded the NIF site for which Washington State inclement weather construction engineers were quickly engaged. A month later, a backhoe uncovered the remains of a 16,000-year-old mammoth that had to be excavated by an archaeological team from the University of California at Berkeley. In each instance, outside expertise was obtained to expeditiously help remedy the hindrances and the end of conventional construction occurred as scheduled.

Meanwhile, the NIF's target chamber was being built. The spherical chamber was made from 6,800-kilogram, 10-centimeter-thick flat aluminum plates, each like a segment of a volleyball. The plates were cast in West Virginia, shaped in France, precision-edge machined in Pennsylvania, and then shipped to Livermore where they were fit together and welded. After assembly, 192 holes of various sizes were precisely located and bored for laser beams, diagnostic instruments, and targets going into the chamber. The completed chamber was hoisted onto a concrete pedestal inside the target building in June 1999 using a crane from the Nevada Test Site that had been transported disassembled to Livermore in 66 trucks (see Exhibit 1).

The NIF's conventional facilities consist primarily of three interconnected buildings: the Optics Assembly Building (OAB), the Laser and Target Area Building (LTAB), and the Diagnostics Building (DB), along with several other smaller laboratory facilities nearby. Construction of all the buildings and supporting utilities was completed in September 2001. All laser beam infrastructure installation was completed in 2003, and the second of the NIF's two laser bays was commissioned in October 2008.

Installation of the Target Chamber

Exhibit 1. Installation of the Target Chamber.

The OAB was the primary location for the final assembly and integration of the over than 6200 modular major assemblies used in the laser system, called Line Replaceable Units, or LRUs (see Exhibit 2). The OAB includes 8,100 square feet of Class 100 clean room space, and houses the world's largest ultrasonic cleaning system, along with the extensive suite of precision LRU assemand alignment equipment designed especially toproject's demanding requirements.

The LTAB, with the footprint of approximately three football fields, and with a temperature stability requirement of 68 +- 1 degree Fahrenheit, houses the 192 laser beams in two identical bays (see Exhibit 3). The NIF's optical system, the world's largest, generates and transports the laser beams through the switchyards and into the target bay, where the frequency is tripled by using special crystals, and each of the 40- × 40-cm beams is focused to a dot less than half the thickness of a single sheet of paper at the center of ten-meter-diameter 130-ton target chamber. The DB attached to the LTAB provides for the maintenance and refurbishment of many (30+) of the large complements of diagnostics used during the experimental campaigns on the NIF. The diagnostics suite will consist of many of the world's fastest x-ray streak cameras, most advanced nuclear imaging equipment, and highest power short pulse laser backlighting capability.

Design and technological achievements were paramount to tailoring scope, thereby reducing cost. Amplifying the NIF's beams to record-shattering energies, keeping the highly energetic beams focused, maintaining cleanliness all along the beam's path, and successfully operating this enormously complex facility — all required the NIF's designers to make major advances in existing laser technology as well as to develop entirely new technologies. Innovations in the design, manufacture, and assembly of the NIF's optics were especially critical. Without these breakthroughs, the NIF would be far less capable, or perhaps might not have been built at all. These advances included:

Amplifier cassette LRU in the OAB

Exhibit 2. Amplifier cassette LRU in the OAB.

  • Amplifiers and other optical components that have been made modular to reduce system downtime and enhance maintenance. Over the years, Livermore scientists learned of the need to maintain a clean environment around the path of the laser to avoid damaging the laser's optics and degrading the beam. The optical modules, known as LRUs, are assembled in the OAB, a clean-room facility adjacent to the main building. Robotic assembly facilitates the handling of parts as heavy as 1,800 kilograms. LRUs are transported to the laser area via a portable clean room to maintaincleanliness all the way through installation and alignment. LRUs can easily be removed and refurbished or upgraded (see Exhibit 4).
NIF facility layout and major subsystems

Exhibit 3. NIF facility layout and major subsystems.

System schematic with location of major LRU assemblies

Exhibit 4. System schematic with location of major LRU assemblies.

  • The neodymium-doped phosphate laser glass is the result of a 25-year joint research and development program with the French Commissariat a l‘Energie Atomique to develop industrial sources. This effort resulted in a revolutionary process for manufacturing meter-size slabs of laser glass that is 10 times faster, 5 times cheaper, and with better optical quality than previous batch processes. This team won an R&D 100 Award and a Lawrence Livermore Science and Technology Award for developing this process.
  • The Plasma Electrode Pockels Cell (PEPC) in the main amplification system. Each PEPC uses a thin slice of KDP (potassium dihydrogen phosphate) crystal measuring 40 by 40 centimeters and sandwiched between two gas-discharge plasmas. The PEPC is part of an optical switch that enables the laser light to pass through the amplifiers multiple times and reduce the required length of the laser bay by a factor of three.
  • The development of technologies to quickly grow large, high-quality KDP crystals and to machine them to the NIF's tight tolerances. KDP is used in the PEPCs to switch the polarization of the light and in the final optics to convert laser light from infrared to both green and ultraviolet light. About 600 large slices of KDP were needed, and growing big enough crystals by traditional methods would have taken years. A fast-growth method, pioneered in Russia and perfected at Livermore, produced crystal boules of the required size in just months. This team also won an R&D 100 Award and successfully transferred this technology to the private sector.

Throughout construction and commissioning, safety was the highest priority and an award-winning record was maintained for over a decade. Early NIF construction had an undesirable Total Recordable Rate (TRR) of incidents that warranted new safety management approaches. Services of an experienced construction safety professional from a company with recognized world-class safety programs, DuPont, were fundamental in implementing the safety culture among the NIF personnel and various subcontractors. The incidence of recordable cases then dropped well below the state and national averages. Four million hours worked without an illness or injury resulting in time off was recognized by the National Safety Council (NSC) for the period 12/2000 – 9/2004, and a million hours worked without illness or injury resulting in time off work was recognized for the period 8/2005 – 5/2006. “Perfect Records” were annually awarded six times by the NSC, and the Construction Users Round Table (CURT) awarded the project for “Construction Industry Safety Excellence” in 2003 based on man-hours worked with lack of injury between 2000 and 2003.

Unique Challenges

The scale and complexity of hardware production for the NIF required a completely different approach than might typically be used for procuring, assembling, testing, calibrating, and installing its myriad of components and systems. The challenge was to procure $550 million of laser hardware over four years to be used in the assembly and installation of over 6,200 precision optics assemblies. The NIF solution was to create an internal production organization to procure, assemble, and install this vast array of equipment.

Industry surveys and strategic studies were conducted to match acquisition strategies with industry competencies. Development, including facilitization in some cases, extended the suppliers’ competencies to meet specialized requirements of NIF designs. Management of suppliers helped to ensure ongoing supplier performance and availability of suitable bidders for future efforts.

Target fabrication illustrated the NIF's unique materials and equipment requirements necessitating the application of rigorous QA scrutiny (see Exhibits 5 and 6). To meet the needs of NIF experiments, the NIF's millimeter-sized targets had to be designed and fabricated to meet precise specifications for density, concentricity and surface smoothness. When a new material structure was needed, materials scientists created the necessary raw materials. Fabrication engineers then determined whether those materials – some never seen before – could be machined and assembled. Manufacturing requirements for all NIF targets were extremely rigid. Components had to be machined to within an accuracy of one micrometer, or one- millionth of a meter. Joints could be no larger than 100 nanometers, which is just 1/1,000th the width of a human hair. In addition, the extreme temperatures and pressures the targets would encounter during experiments made the results highly susceptible to imperfections in fabrication. Thus, the margin of error for target assembly, which varied by component, was strict. Throughout the design process, engineers inspected the target materials and components using nondestructive characterization methods to ensure that target specifications were met and that all components were free of defects. Together, this multidisciplinary team took an experimental target from concept to reality.

Ignition target point design

Exhibit 5. Ignition target point design.

Fabricated target assembly

Exhibit 6. Fabricated target assembly.

Aligning and timing the NIF's 192 giant laser beams required extraordinary precision. Every NIF experimental shot requires the coordination of up to 60,000 control points for electronic, high voltage, optical and mechanical devices – motorized mirrors and lenses, energy and power sensors, video cameras, laser amplifiers and diagnostic instruments. Achieving this level of precision requires a large-scale computer control system as sophisticated as any in government service or private industry. The layout of the NIF control room was derived from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's mission control room in Houston, Texas. Control room operators access data through a hierarchy of on-screen graphics menus. Conceived and built by a team of 100 software developers, engineers and quality control experts, the NIF's integrated computer control system (ICCS) software entails about two million lines of code running on more than 850 computers. ICCS, which is operated from a main control room, fires the laser and conducts experiments automatically.

The meticulous orchestration of these parts has resulted in the propagation of 192 separate nanosecond (billionth of a second)-long bursts of light over a one-kilometer path length. The 192 separate beams must have optical path lengths equal to within nine millimeters so that the pulses can arrive within 30 picoseconds (trillionths of a second) of each other at the center of the target chamber (see Exhibit 7). Then they must strike within 50 micrometers of their assigned spot on a target the size of a pencil eraser. The NIF's pointing accuracy can be compared to standing on the pitcher's mound at AT&T Park in San Francisco and throwing a strike at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, some 350 miles away. Because the precise alignment of the NIF's laser beams is extremely important for successful operation, the requirements for vibration, thermal and seismic stability were unusually demanding. Critical beampath component enclosures (generally for mirrors and lenses), many weighing tens of tons, were located to a precision of 100 microns using a rigorous engineering process for design validation and as-installed verification.

Project Management Processes and Knowledge Areas

The NIF Project Manager directed the project organization to work to the fullest extent as Integrated Project Teams (IPTs). The IPTs were a management methodology that incorporated a systematic approach to the early integration and concurrent application of all the disciplines that played a part throughout a systems life cycle. IPTs were multi-functional, multi-organizational groups formed to capitalize on the strengths of all participants in the processes assigned to the team. The NIF Directorate provided infrastructure and support for project controls, system engineering/experimental physics, personnel management, facilities support, public relations, information technology, business management oversight, administration, security, environmental, safety and assurances.

The IPTs performed in a spirit of teamwork with participants empowered and authorized, to the maximum extent possible, to make commitments for the organization or the functional area they represented. While the leadership remained constant, the participation intensity of core team members and adjunct team members varied depending on the STEP/phase point of the particular Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) element. It was vitally important that all core team members remained a part of an IPT's decision-making process throughout the lifetime of the team. Team life cycle ran from the time of team chartering through turn over to NIF operations. These teams were very effective, as their actions and recommendations were based on timely input from the entire team.

Earned Value Management (EVM) was brought to the fore as a key process and tool used by the project team to plan and manage the project, providing insight into the ongoing execution and decision-making processes of the project. EVM provided objective information to the stakeholder community regarding the progress of the project. This system and its processes and procedures later formed much of the basis for the development and certification of the LLNL-wide Laboratory Performance Management System (LPMS), LLNL's ANSI/EIA Standard 748-A compliant EVM system.

Precision target positioner at Target Chamber Center

Exhibit 7. Precision target positioner at Target Chamber Center.

The Project Execution Plan (PEP), the EVM system, and the Project Control Manual provided exhaustive direction for planning, management, monitoring, and integrated change control. The WBS for the project was highly product-oriented and consisted primarily of nested levels of detail from the major functional systems of the project down through the subsystems, subassemblies, and components. The Responsibility Assignment Matrix (RAM) that was classically derived from the intersection of the WBS and the Organizational Breakdown Structure (OBS) was augmented by the project team with a third dimension, called the Step/Phase. The activity phases required to fully deliver all of the scope defined by the WBS was also broken down and grouped into the major steps to be taken to accomplish the work, such as Requirements Management, Risk Management, Engineering Design, Procurement, Assembly and Installation, and Commissioning. Work packages were formulated at the intersection of the WBS, OBS, and Step/Phase to ensure that all of the scope required to execute the project was planned with all of the steps necessary to deliver the required scope delineated and assigned to a responsible individual.

The Project Management team, consisting of the Project Manager, Deputy Project Manager, Control Account Managers (CAMs), and Project Controls representatives, established the strategic plan for accomplishing the Level 0–3 milestones defined in the NIF PEP. Using the interface control milestones as constraints, the CAMs developed sufficient activity detail to plan and status their work, and assure the entire schedule was consistent with resources in the cost-estimating worksheets. The project activities were integrated and evaluated at a level that defined all significant interdependencies between project elements. Over 30,000 “Earned Value Activities” (EVAs) were identified as earned value items, and completion criteria were defined for each in the CAP.

The project implemented a procedure and process for developing, statusing, and maintaining the NIF Project Integrated Project Schedule (IPS) consistent with the requirements of a certified EVM System. A Master LRU Installation Schedule defined decision points/control milestones to manage the interface between batch production (GLOVIA-Enterprise Resource Planning) activities and the logically networked (IPS-scheduled) activities. The IPT leader for each of the major WBS elements was charged with “cradle-to-grave” responsibility for the functional system under his/her purview. The CAMs were responsible to the IPT leaders for developing and maintaining the appropriate GLOVIA plans, including Manufacturing Bills of Material, Work Flows, and Work Order scheduling. CAMs maintained detailed plans and schedules of activities, durations, activity interdependencies, procurements and staff, needed to coordinate and manage their daily work. As required, adjustments (e.g., activity durations, activity links, and/or funding constraints) were coordinated to assure that the project would meet milestone dates within the allocated budget.

Start/complete dates for all EVA milestones were filed in the Master Activity Table. The dates associated with each defined milestone were referred to as the “Planned or Target” dates. Detailed work schedules were reviewed in daily facility coordination meetings and installation and commissioning activities were statused weekly. GLOVIA was updated as material was received and work orders were processed. At the end of each calendar month, the CAMs recorded the status of progress on earned value activities using the earned value status worksheet. CAMs provided actual/projected dates and percent complete. The IPS was updated to incorporate this information, and the Project Controls team conducted analyses, including critical path, for management review.

Laser Bay 2 beampath complete – on schedule

Exhibit 8. Laser Bay 2 beampath complete – on schedule.

Schedule contingency was included in the IPS. The project was to deliver laser light to the target chamber for the first time in FY04 and was to complete the installation of all 192 laser beams by the end of the fourth quarter FY08 (see Exhibit 8). Milestones for these important dates and the commissioning of other laser groupings were established. Internal to the NIF Project, target dates, which were earlier than the project milestones, were also established to ensure maintaining schedule. Positive schedule float, ranging between 60 and 120 working days, existed for all of these milestones.

From project inception, the total cost of the project remained one of the major drivers in its overall management. Consequently, a great deal of emphasis was placed on cost risk identification and management, value engineering, project contingency, and integrated cost and schedule performance monitoring and control. Formal plans were developed for most of these areas, and their implementation and execution were a prime responsibility of the senior project leadership team.

A robust Value Engineering (VE) program was implemented to identify areas of potential savings. Six-Sigma experts were brought in to review assumptions, processes and management practices. Multiple VE initiatives were launched during the design phase of the NIF to reduce procurement cost of hardware. The Six-Sigma process improvement initiatives were implemented throughout the NIF line replaceable unit production organization. Further, production spaces were reconfigured to optimize throughput. Constructability reviews prior to each construction phase were conducted to keep looking ahead to identify construction/installation impediments and address them early. Industry experts were brought in to evaluate the best options to install the massive NIF beampath infrastructure components in a high-performance clean room environment.

The cost projections for the baseline were a bottom-up estimate. More than 25,000 cost items were detailed for all of the go-forward work and procurements necessary to successfully complete the project from FY01 to FY09. These estimates had a confidence interval greater than 80% based on detailed drawings/specifications, material take offs, or awarded vendor quote values. An equivalent degree of detail was implemented into the 30,000 activities and 35,000 logical linkages of the task-based schedule. The extent of this logical network was a powerful tool that could be used to resolve schedule issues as they arose and provided confidence that milestone objectives could be completed on schedule. The cost and schedule linkage ensured that resources were available as required to accomplish the schedule. In addition to developing these detailed plans, specific risk mitigation efforts and contingency allocations were made to further increase project confidence. Planning in an environment of uncertain availability and rising commodity costs warranted early procurement of materials to manage cost risk and assure material supply during construction. The NIF management procured most of the steel necessary (7,600 tons of reinforcing steel and about 5,000 tons of structural steel) in a single long lead procurement – a mill run.

Learning curves were incorporated into both the schedule and cost estimates as part of the overall set of metrics used to assure high-quality, cost-effective production. A learning curve of 85% was assumed where appropriate for production rates and quantities and schedule projections. This approach, when coupled with the additional tools of value engineering and lean Six-Sigma process improvement, often resulted in a yield better than planned. The return on investment of these improvements is estimated to have reduced the overall cost of LRU production by over $10M.

A Monte-Carlo simulation process was used to ensure that the derivation of the contingency required to successfully execute the project was based on a quantitative risk assessment. This resulted in a contingency of 26.7% on the Estimate to Complete, which was validated by the DOE oversight review committee as a level commensurate with DOE guidelines and risk assessment practices. The contingency derivation was built using inputs to the formal risk analysis, statistical cost estimating uncertainty analysis, allowance for post award change orders, and industry standard allocations for conventional construction and project management assessments.

Successful Completion

Execution of the NIF Project transpired over 16 years under seven Department of Energy secretaries during three different presidential administrations. Funding levels were not as planned in seven fiscal years, and there were 13 years of Continuing Resolutions that delayed the availability of annual funding, necessitating repeated re-sequencing of remaining work scope. The project was able to use its integrated change control process to re-sequence the schedule and meet the owner/sponsor's requirements.

In February 2009, an external panel of experts conducted a Laser Performance Review and certified that the NIF met or exceeded its performance criteria. The Readiness Assessment process confirmed that the NIF was ready for routine integrated operations. On March 10, 2009, a 192-beam shot was fired on the NIF delivering 1.2 million joules of ultraviolet energy in a pulse that precisely matched the shape specified for achieving ignition. This is the first time any laser has broken the megajoule barrier.

The NIF's official dedication on May 29, 2009, was an outstanding occasion to showcase the NIF's achievements. The dedication was attended by over 3,500 individuals, including high-level government officials (Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Senator Dianne Feinstein, Representatives Tauscher, Lofgren and McNernery), senior leaders of academia (University of California President Mark Yudof) and the Department of Energy (Tom D‘Agostino and Steve Koonin). In addition, many of our foreign colleagues representing the U.K, France, and Japan were in attendance, along with over 100 vendor companies who played a role in the NIF's success. This event drew wide media coverage with an Associated Press article being carried by hundreds of news media outlets around the world. The NIF was featured on the PBS News Hour with Jim Leher, in the New York Times, and on BBC's Horizon program, to name a few venues. The “Family Day” weekend following the dedication, during which the facility was made available for public viewing, drew over 11,000 visitors. Self-guided tours, numerous displays and exhibits, and NIF docents disseminated information and answered questions.

For the past nine years, the NIF Project earned Outstanding Performance scores from DOE in every annual contract assessment of Laboratory management. Upon project completion, the NIF was cited by the Secretary of Energy as an example of successful management of taxpayer dollars and national security needs. The Secretary proclaimed the NIF to be “a marvel.” The NNSA Administrator stated the NIF stands out as a prime example of project management excellence, and the NIF's DOE Federal Project Director was awarded for outstanding performance by the Secretary. To be named the Project Management Institute 2010 Project of the Year is indeed a great honor for the Department, the contributing laboratories, and the innumerable national and international project participants and stakeholders.

This work performed under the auspices of the U.S. Department of Energy by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory under Contract DE-AC52-07NA27344. LLNL-AR-447511. NIF-0116731.

Department of Energy. (2006, July) Program and Project Management of the Acquisition of Capital Assets (DOE Order 0413.3A Chg 1) Washington D.C.: U.S. Department of Energy.

Project Management Institute. (2008) A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) – (4th ed.) Newton Square, PA: Project Management Institute.

American National Standards Institute (ANSI)/Electronic Industries Alliance (EIA). (2007, June) Earned Value Management Systems (Standard 748-B) New York, NY.

© 2010, Ed Moses
Originally published as part of 2010 PMI Global Congress Proceedings — Washington, D.C.