Risk Management Assessment and Evaluation Case Study

December 11, 2012

National Ignition Facility – Risk Management Assessment and Evaluation

Facility Construction

After all preliminary steps had been completed, including Key Decision 0, Conceptual Design Report (CDR) and Critical Decision 3, which reaffirmed the need for the facility and authorized its construction, the groundbreaking took place at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory construction site on May 29, 1997.

The risks involved in the construction of the facility of such specifications and size were immense. The final size of the facility, housing all the components required for its intended purposes, was that of a football stadium and 10 stories high.

NIF Conventional Facility

 Figure 1. The NIF conventional facility featuring laser system architecture.

To better understand the challenges of the NIF construction, including risk management aspect, we are going to briefly describe the physical facility itself in greater detail. There are four essential elements:

a)      Conventional facilities

b)      Beampath infrastructure

c)      Line Replaceable Units (LRU)

d)      Optics

NIF Four Major Systems

Figure 2. Four major systems of the NIF.

The conventional facilities include the site, buildings, and general utilities such as the HVAC system. The Beampath Infrastructure System (BIS) includes the mechanical beampath components, such as the large vacuum vessels at the ends of the spatial filters and the beam tubes, as well as the power systems support for all 192 beams. The LRUs are the mechanical modules that hold and position optical components within the BIS. The optics are the laser slabs, crystal slices, lenses, and other optical components themselves. (The National Ignition Facility W. Hogan, E. Moses, B. Warner, M. Sorem, J. Soures)

Each of these major systems had their own unique technical requirements and constraints that had to be addressed as a separate subset of the projects due to their nature.

Even though considerable amount of effort was invested into planning, including risk management aspect of the project, prior to the beginning of the construction, many of the original estimates proved to be off the mark.

When we look at the timeline of the NIF construction presented at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory website: https://lasers.llnl.gov/multimedia/timeline/nif_construction/, all we can see are the major milestones in seemingly triumphant progression.

May 1997 – Groundbreaking Ceremony

June 1999 – Target Chamber Installed

September 2001 – First Line Replaceable Unit Installed

September 2001 – Conventional Facility Completed

October 2001 – Cluster 3 Beampath Completed

September 2002 – Switchyard 2 Beampath Completed

December 2002 – First Quad Transport Mirrors Installed

February 2003 – Final Optics System Completes NIF Early Light Beampath

March 2003 – Spatial Filter Beam Path Infrastructure Completed

April 2003 – Laser Bay 1 Beampath Completed

August 2003 – Switchyard 1 Beampath Completed

August 2005 – Front End Processor Assembly Facility Completed

February 2006 – 25 Percent of LRUs Installed

June 2006 – Utility Installation Completed

July 2007 – Laser Bay 2 Commissioned

November 2007 – Target Area Systems Automated

May 2008 – NIF Project is 97 Percent Complete

September 2008 – NIF Main Laser Commissioned

November 2008 – Main Laser Bays Are Fully Operational

January 2009 – Final LRU Installed

February 2009 – All Project Completion Criteria Met

March 2009 – NNSA Certifies NIF Completion

Some of the setbacks in the completion of the projects were caused by pure risks, known as hazards. For example there was a discovery of the mammoth bones on the construction site in December 1997; in one of the early years of the construction there was registered a twice normal rainfall. These hazards were mitigated in the normal course of the project and did not cause major delays or cost overruns.

Another positive aspect of managing hazards during the construction phase was the ability of the construction team to avoid any major injuries. This is confirmed by the fact that in July 2002 2,000,000 safe hours of work were achieved without a lost workday. The similar landmark was achieved in April 2003 – 3,000,000 safe hours. The NIF Project earned the National Safety Council’s “Perfect Year” award for both 2001 and 2002. The “Construction Industry Safety Excellence Award” was also received by Jacobs Construction, the major contractor on the construction, for the outstanding safety record achieved by its NIF work crew.

Therefore, overall risk management of hazards in the construction was quite effective. However, along this project progression and obvious success milestones, there were some serious stumbling blocks and setbacks that have been revealed through the reports of various audits and investigations.

Project Execution, Risk Monitoring and Control

Some of the setbacks were caused by the threats inherent in any breakthrough research and development projects, such as NIF, where exact outcome or its timeliness is impossible to predict precisely.  But there were some other threats that were not effectively mitigated because of the shortcomings in the Project Risk Management Plan proper, but mostly because of the way it was implemented.

From our analysis of the risk management practices at NIF project the main problem we identified was the disconnect between the proclaimed objectives and their actual implementation. These problems specifically manifested themselves during the execution phase of the project.

One of the many examples of such disconnect was mentioned in the Congressional Research Services Report (CRS) of November 8, 2001. According to the report, in March 1999 LLNL determined that there were potential major technical problems with NIF construction that threatened to substantially increase the project costs. However, these findings were not properly reported along the chain of accountability. When these projected cost increases were eventually reported, this triggered the formation of special groups for internal investigations of management and technical problems at the project.

Three groups for conducting these investigation were presented by a) special task force of the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board (SEAB); b) special committee of the University of California (UC), which managed LLNL under contract to DOE, President’s Council; and c) Technology Resource Group of the NIF Council, and advisory group internal to LLNL, which was focused specifically on the technical issues of the project.

The investigation that was conducted by lasted for almost half a year and uncovered serious deficiencies in the project management by LLNL, the lack of oversight from the DOE, the accountability issues, among others. These factors, as well as the fact that initial budgets did not reflect properly project complexity or had sufficient time and cost reserves, contributed to significant cost overruns and schedule delay. (GAO Report, August 8, 2000).

In order to correct these serious problems the intervention of the Congress was required to setup additional safeguards against the uncontrolled cost increases and schedule delays. Specifically, the following measures were introduced as a result of the internal investigations:

  • an Associate Director of NIF reporting to the LLNL director was established;
  • UC established a special panel of the President’s Council charged with oversight of the NIF project;
  • a headquarters NIF project office was established;
  • the NIF project was made part of the DOE Project Management and Oversight function — mandated by Congress — that would provide an on-site DOE contractor with expertise in large, complex project management;
  • important decisions about NIF had to be approved by the DOE Deputy Secretary before funding was provided. (CRS, November 2001)

As was mentioned before, some changes, even significant one, along the project implementation could be expected, given a considerable element of ongoing research and development involved into NIF project. The issue was that DOE and LLNL did not address these changes in the manner that had been prescribed in their own Risk Management Plan and other documentation in support of the NIF project.

An example of proactive approach to cost and schedule monitor and control was rebaselining of the project in 2004. Some critics could argue that this measure lead to further costs increases and schedule extension. However we believe that this was an adequate and appropriate response to the project challenges and opportunities that emerged during its implementation.

Since the construction time of the facility of that scale was relatively long, it was critical to incorporate the latest technological improvements and discoveries into the construction project as they occurred in the R&D labs. Otherwise, the equipment and technologies used in NIF would be obsolete at the completion of the project.

For example, during the facility construction phase some mass production techniques were developed for producing large-aperture optical components, among other major technological developments that are too technical in nature for the purposes of this analysis, but which had significant effect on the success of the NIF project as whole.

Also, as the construction of the NIF proceeded, more attention was focused on the integration of the assembly components into the operational system. It eventually became clear to the systems engineering group and the Project Team that new methods of deploying NIF were warranted. Therefore the deployment plans for the NIF equipment were dramatically revised and consequently this lead to the increased costs and schedule stretch. As a result, the schedule was stretched by four years, and the budget was revised upwards to $2.25 billion.

Even though the new implementation techniques of the project resulted in cost and schedule increases, the original mission and specifications of the NIF project remained intact and had a better chance for successful completion.

Admittedly, this new revised schedule and budget were overrun later in the project again due to the newly discovered technical problems and lagging of the research behind the projected timeline. But we agree that rebaselining was a necessary and appropriate response to the project risks as they were known in 2004.

Another example of proactive control measures in the NIF project was establishing of the National Ignition Campaign (NIC) in 2005. As the assembly of the facility systems was drawing closer to completion, there were still some significant hurdles to overcome in the scientific and technical support of the project. Therefore NNSA established the NIC to focus on the management of the ignition activities.

In particular, for the NIF to accomplish its original mission there were three challenges that needed to be resolved:

  • minimize the reflection of the laser energy;
  • achieve fuel implosion with enough velocity for ignition;
  • control the damage to NIF’s glass optics.

Even though these challenges proved to be much more difficult to overcome than was originally estimated, the very fact that a special program, NIC, was established to address these challenges was an example of proactive risk management. These scientific and technical challenges are still not completely resolved at the time of our analysis. In fact, the latest Congressional Report from GAO issued in 2010 highlights these same problems with the NIC and expresses moderate caution on the chances of the NIF to resolve the challenges successfully in 2012, which is the latest approved project completion deadline.  On the other hand there is reasonable optimism that these problems will be eventually solved.

Overall we conclude that the NIF and its offshoot – NIC- have had some positive elements, specifically in the areas of Risk Management Infrastructure, RM Planning, RM Identification, and  Risk Analysis. However, especially in the early stages of the project, there were a lot of problems with the actual implementation of the documented proclamations. This gap seems to have decreased continuously over the life of the project, even though some deficiencies are still persistent and need further attention from the project team.