The NSA's huge Utah data center is supposed to help U.S. intelligence collect billions of bytes of data when it opens this fall. But the agency hit a snag or two in trying to take the complex live: a mysterious, repeated electrical failure keeps melting the facility's equipment. The center, located in Utah in part because of a need to access the massive amounts of cheap electricity available there, has suffered 10 meltdowns over 13 months, starting in August 2012. Each incident created about $100,000 dollars in damage.
And according to the Wall Street Journal report on the facility, those problems could have a lot to do with the contractors (a running theme) tasked with building it. The Journal, using documents and interviews, outlines the delays and problems encountered by the agency in its completion of the mostly classified complex. Speaking to an official, the paper notes that the electrical problems plaguing the facility are like "a flash of lightning inside a 2-foot box." And those flashes, they continue, "create fiery explosions, melt metal and cause circuits to fail." So, why is it happening? It could be because of some cut corners in the design and construction of its electrical system:
Backup generators have failed numerous tests, according to project documents, and officials disagree about whether the cause is understood. There are also disagreements among government officials and contractors over the adequacy of the electrical control systems, a project official said, and the cooling systems also remain untested.
The Army Corps of Engineers is overseeing the construction of the facility, but the electrical work was contracted out to architectural firm KlingStubbin, which is itself a subcontractor of Balfour Beatty Construction, DPR Construction and Big-D Construction Corp. The Army Corps don't seem to be in agreement about whether the problems with the electrical system as it stands will be corrected by a proposed fix, either. While Chief of Construction Operations, Norbert Suter told the Journal that the issues were "identified" and "currently being corrected," by the contractor, an assessment last week by a unit of the Army Corps said that "we did not find any indication that the proposed equipment modification measures will be effective in preventing future incidents."
When the Utah center is up and running, it'll cost about $1 million a month in electricity costs alone. That's on top of the $1.4 billion construction costs, along with the undisclosed cost of the supercomputers used to host the data (the exact amount of data stored at the center is classified). One section of the complex was supposed to open in October of 2012, but the project is over a year behind — the NSA might try turning on some computers in the coming week, the Journal reports. When it's completed and free of melting equipment, the center will be the largest facility in the NSA's arsenal, giving it more than enough room to keep on going with its massive collection of communications data.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.