Energy. The tests are to be conducted at the Nevada Test Site near Las Vegas by the nation's nuclear weapons lab starting this week.
Top-ranking DOE and lab officials have repeatedly pegged the cost of so-called subcritical experiments at $15 million to $20 million each. The tests are designed to shock radioactive plutonium with a high-explosive detonation without producing a nuclear chain reaction.
But the agency, which funds the labs, revealed test preparations have already cost between $77 million and $100 million without any tests taking place.
If it goes as scheduled, the blast, code-named Rebound, would occur more than a year after its original planned date. DOE has said it delayed the tests to finish an analysis of future uses for the test site. But critics claim DOE held off to avoid complicating negotiations under way last summer concerning a global ban on full-scale nuclear tests.
"The first tests are significantly more expensive than we expected largely due to the increased time line," said DOE spokeswoman Carmen MacDougall. The department is asking for another $70 million for fiscal 1998, which begins Oct. 1, but a bill approved by the House last week forbids it from spending more on the experiments until the energy secretary submits a written report detailing 1996 and 1997 expenditures.
DOE announced Monday that Los Alamos (N.M.) National Laboratory would ignite the first of the two tests Wednesday. Preparations are moving ahead for Lawrence Livermore Laboratory to conduct the second test this fall, before the new fiscal year begins, but no date has been set.
MacDougall also blamed the sticker shock on high start-up costs of doing something new. The cost per test is expected to come down if the labs are allowed to conduct a series of blasts, as originally planned, she said.
Paying so much for the tests is "grotesque," said Christopher Paine of the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington, D.C. On the other hand, high prices are "par for the course" in a program with a history of conducting expensive, full-scale nuclear tests, he said. "It's a high budget, high overhead operation," he said.
The council is the leading environmental group in a lawsuit filed in May that challenges the subcritical tests, among other DOE nuclear weapons programs collectively known as stockpile stewardship and management.
"As a taxpayer, I'm outraged," said Livermore activist Marylia Kelley, president of Tri-Valley Citizens Against a Radioactive Environment, another plaintiff in the suit. But she wasn't surprised, she said, because "every element of stockpile stewardship and management so far has a continuously escalating price tag."
Kelley said local foes of the tests are planning a rally in San Francisco on Wednesday to protest them.