Sparking ignition

More than a decade after it began, the National Ignition Facility project sets a record for laser energy.






From left: Scott Samuelson, PMP, Edward Moses, PhD, Ralph Patterson Jr., Mary Spaeth and Bruno Van Wonterghem, PhD

Nuclear reactions occur all the time in active stars, but mirroring the reaction within the confines of a laboratory is another matter altogether.

On that quest since the early 1970s, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE)'s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) initiated a project to build the National Ignition Facility & Photon Science Directorate (NIF) in 1996. Part of its mission was to provide scientists with the physics understanding necessary to achieve a controlled, self-sustaining nuclear fusion reaction known as ignition.

Such an achievement would be a major step toward developing inertial fusion energy as a clean, safe and virtually unlimited power source, says Ed Moses, PhD, principal associate director, NIF, Livermore, California, USA.

Just opening the facility, though, took nearly 13 years and more than US$3.5 billion—along with thousands of engineers, scientists and technicians. And then there was the massive restructuring of the project plan after signs of missed milestones and budget overrides.


Dr. Moses calls ignition “an engineering challenge of the first order.” It requires “rock-solid stability in the optics support systems, precise placement and alignment of components—despite a multitude of opportunities for errors to creep in—and a rigorously accurate computer timing system.”

To accomplish fusion, the DOE needed a facility that went beyond state-of-the-art. In January 1993, then-U.S. Secretary of Energy James Watkins approved the statement of mission need for the NIF, greenlighting what would become the NNSA's largest scientific construction project.

The primary mission was to help the NNSA gain a better understanding of the complex physics of nuclear weapons while maintaining the moratorium on underground testing.

Four years later, the project team broke ground on the NIF's 500,000-squarefoot (46,452-square-meter) facility, comprised of three interconnected buildings: the Optics Assembly Building, the Laser and Target Area Building and the Diagnostics Building.

Inside the Optics Assembly Building, large precision-engineered laser components were assembled under stringent cleanroom conditions into special modules for installation into the laser system.

The Laser and Target Area Building houses 192 laser beams in two identical bays. Large mirrors, specially coated for the laser wavelength and mounted on 10-story-tall structures, direct the laser beams through switchyards and into a target bay. There, they are focused at the exact center of the 10-meter (33-foot) -diameter concrete-shielded, 130-ton target chamber.


A look down one of the main laser bays.


When the construction phase of the project began, the team had a hard and fast deadline of September 2001 to meet its milestones for equipment installation and testing.

Mother Nature had a different plan. In 1997, El Niño rains flooded the work site. To keep the project on schedule, the team brought in outside help, including construction engineers trained to work in inclement weather.

Construction was again slowed when workers discovered the remains of a 16,000-year-old mammoth. An archaeological team from University of California–Berkeley came on scene to excavate the mammoth, nicknamed “Niffy.”

By August 1999, the NIF project team forecast major scheduling delays and cost overruns. The causes were twofold:

  • 1. The team had not planned adequately for the complexity and high cleanliness requirements associated with installing the intricate and tightly packed clusters of lasers.
  • 2. The lack of a systems engineering focus within the NIF management hierarchy resulted in managers who didn't properly identify the full scope and greatly miscalculated the project's engineering complexities.

Then-Secretary Bill Richardson announced a series of actions to “get NIF back on track.” The DOE directed the project team to develop a new baseline, which would have to be approved by the DOE and then by Congress.

“We should have but did not recognize that the size and complexity of assembling a clean infrastructure for 192 beam lines in a tight space bore more resemblance to aerospace and semi-conductor facilities than our previous experience building laser research facilities,” Dr. Moses says. “We engaged an industrial partner and subcontractors with proven records of constructing similarly complex facilities to assemble and install the critical beam path infrastructure. We conducted a bottoms-up reassessment of costs and schedule to complete design and assembly of optical systems, providing the basis for the project baseline.”


A new senior management team was established at the NNSA and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) to provide clearer oversight and lines of authority. The formal risk posture was reassessed, and a revised contingency level was derived.


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To ensure the new plan was comprehensive and executable, the DOE arranged for outside scientific and technical reviews of the NIF's cost and schedule risk.

“These reviews observed that a talented management team augmented with industrial partners capable of completing the project was in place and that the cost, schedule and contingency for the NIF's new project baseline was sound and appropriate,” Dr. Moses continues.

Additionally, the reviews found that an earned value system of cost and schedule management had been put in place and was maturing.

“Project management has been restructured and has demonstrated over the last six months that it is capable of managing a project of this scope,” Secretary Richardson concluded. He particularly lauded the use of industrial experts with relevant experience to both review and participate in the project.

At the same time, the DOE launched several initiatives directed at improving management of its project portfolio. It released a new directive for the acquisition of capital assets, which relies heavily on concepts and processes outlined in A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide).

The successful turnaround and completion of the NIF project can be traced directly to the strategic change in approach to project management adopted by the department and the LLNL, Dr. Moses says.


Dealing with lasers is dangerous business, making safety management the paramount issue on the National Ignition Facility (NIF) project.

To minimize the possibilities of cost increases, schedule delays or, worse, project termination, the NIF team created a project site safety program. It instituted job hazards analysis, training and qualification programs, and management and worker commitments to safety.

“The program provided a uniform and rigorous set of safety requirements with defined roles and responsibilities governing all activities at the site,” says Ed Moses, PhD, NIF, Livermore, California, USA.

The team called in a consultant to help implement a culture of safety among the NIF personnel and various subcontractors.

An award-winning safety record was maintained for over a decade—and workers put in more than 5 million hours without illness or injury resulting in time off.



Know of a particularly impressive project? Nominate it for the PMI 2011 Project of the Year Award. Learn more at


With the methodology woes addressed, the project team could focus on its next task: building not only the world's highest-energy laser but the largest optical instrument ever built as well.

“For the NIF to succeed, the quality of the optics had to be higher than anything previously produced, and all optical materials had to be manufactured in a shorter time than was possible with existing technologies,” Dr. Moses says.

To get the job done, scientists and engineers on the project team worked closely with optics vendors, two industrial partners and the French Commissariat à l'Energie Atomique.

The system required more than 3,000 pieces of laser glass that would be 1.5 miles (2.4 kilometers) long if placed end to end. Continuous glass melting was the only way to produce the large quantity and high quality of laser glass necessary in the time available.

An aggressive construction schedule meant finding a way to rapidly grow high-quality KDP (potassium dihydrogen phosphate) crystals, which convert infrared laser beams to ultraviolet light and improve the interaction of the laser beams with the fusion target.

A new technology had to be developed, and it proved amazingly effective: Crystals that would have taken up to two years to grow by traditional techniques were produced in a couple of months. In addition, the crystals were large enough that more glass plates could be cut from each.

The project used 480 optics from the rapidly grown KDP, as well as 192 optics produced from traditionally grown DKDP (potassium dideuterium phosphate), which crystallizes in a similar form. Once all the optics were complete, approximately 75 production crystals were grown, weighing nearly 100 tons.

In the process, the team revolutionized the manufacturing of precision large optics, producing 1-meter (3-foot) plates of laser glass that could be manufactured 20 percent faster, five times cheaper and with better quality than previous one-at-a-time processes.

Technology breakthroughs didn't stop there. Working closely with a variety of other partners, the project team developed pulsed-power electronics, innovative integrated computer control systems and advanced manufacturing capabilities. More than 12,000 contracts were awarded to 8,000-plus vendors during project execution, representing US$1.8 billion of procurements.


Construction, assembly and installation of the special equipment was completed US$2 million under budget and three weeks ahead of schedule. All 192 enclosures for laser beams were finalized in 2003, and the second of two laser bays was commissioned in October 2008.

Construction wrapped up in February 2009, and the next month scientists at the NIF fired a 192-beam shot delivering 1.1 megajoules of infrared energy to the center of the target chamber in the complex-shaped pulse needed for ignition. The NNSA certified the facility later in March.

But all that was just the first phase of the project. The team also had to demonstrate the facility could operate for the next 30 or more years. This required delivering a qualified operations staff, safety systems, documents and drawings, training materials and qualification cards, procedures for operating and maintenance, work authorization and control, and configuration-management systems.


After touring the NIF in October 2009, the new Secretary of Energy, Steven Chu, called the facility “a marvel” and an example of successful management of taxpayer dollars and national security needs. At the NIF's official dedication on 29 May 2009, Thomas D'Agostino, administrator of the NNSA, cited the NIF as a prime example of project management excellence, and the NNSA's NIF project director Scott Samuelson, PMP, received the federal project director of the year award last year from the DOE.

The facility experienced its first testing success in January, when its staff broke what it calls “the megajoule barrier”: Scientists hit a target with a historic level of laser energy just over 1 megajoule—about 30 times more than delivered by any other group of lasers in the world—all in a few billionths of a second.

“Breaking the megajoule barrier brings us one step closer to fusion ignition at the NIF and shows the universe of opportunities made possible by one of the largest scientific and engineering challenges of our time,” Mr. D'Agostino says.

Its accomplishments earned the NIF team the PMI 2010 Project of the Year award.

“We are most proud to have successfully completed the project ahead of schedule and under budget,” Dr. Moses says. “This was accomplished by an extraordinarily talented team of scientists, engineers and technicians supported by an equally talented and energetic administrative staff. Their ingenuity, dedication and hard work have taken us to the verge of a historic scientific breakthrough.” PM


The target chamber containing the final optics assembly.




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