Chronic electrical surges at the massive new data-storage facility central to the National Security Agency's spying operation have destroyed hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of machinery and delayed the center's opening for a year, according to project documents and current and former officials.
There have been 10 meltdowns in the past 13 months that have prevented the NSA from using computers at its new Utah data-storage center, slated to be the spy agency's largest, according to project documents reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.
One project official described the electrical troubles—so-called arc fault failures—as "a flash of lightning inside a 2-foot box." These failures create fiery explosions, melt metal and cause circuits to fail, the official said.
The causes remain under investigation, and there is disagreement whether proposed fixes will work, according to officials and project documents. One Utah project official said the NSA planned this week to turn on some of its computers there.
Electrical surges at the new data-storage facility central to the National Security Agency's spying operation have destroyed hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of machinery and delayed the center's opening for a year. Siobhan Gorman reports. Photo: Getty.
NSA spokeswoman Vanee Vines acknowledged problems but said "the failures that occurred during testing have been mitigated. A project of this magnitude requires stringent management, oversight, and testing before the government accepts any building."
The Utah facility, one of the Pentagon's biggest U.S. construction projects, has become a symbol of the spy agency's surveillance prowess, which gained broad attention in the wake of leaks from NSA contractor Edward Snowden. It spans more than one-million square feet, with construction costs pegged at $1.4 billion—not counting the Cray supercomputers that will reside there.
Exactly how much data the NSA will be able to store there is classified. Engineers on the project believe the capacity is bigger than Google's largest data center. Estimates are in a range difficult to imagine but outside experts believe it will keep exabytes or zettabytes of data. An exabyte is roughly 100,000 times the size of the printed material in the Library of Congress; a zettabyte is 1,000 times larger.
But without a reliable electrical system to run computers and keep them cool, the NSA's global surveillance data systems can't function. The NSA chose Bluffdale, Utah, to house the data center largely because of the abundance of cheap electricity. It continuously uses 65 megawatts, which could power a small city of at least 20,000, at a cost of more than $1 million a month, according to project officials and documents.
Utah is the largest of several new NSA data centers, including a nearly $900 million facility at its Fort Meade, Md., headquarters and a smaller one in San Antonio. The first of four data facilities at the Utah center was originally scheduled to open in October 2012, according to project documents.
In the wake of the Snowden leaks, the NSA has been criticized for its expansive domestic operations. Through court orders, the NSA collects the phone records of nearly all Americans and has built a system with telecommunications companies that provides coverage of roughly 75% of Internet communications in the U.S.
In another program called Prism, companies including Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Yahoo are under court orders to provide the NSA with account information. The agency said it legally sifts through the collected data to advance its foreign intelligence investigations.
The data-center delays show that the NSA's ability to use its powerful capabilities is undercut by logistical headaches. Documents and interviews paint a picture of a project that cut corners to speed building.