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NSA’s Utah flop house

Kashmir Hill Kashmir Hill, Forbes Staff

The NSA’s Hugely Expensive Utah Data Center

Has Major Electrical Problems

And Basically Isn’t Working

The NSA data center in Utah may have had to use this plan thanks to electrical concerns

Well, this is good news for those with privacy concerns about the NSA and terrible news for those concerned about government spending. The National Security Agency’s new billion-dollar-plus data center in Bluffdale, Utah was supposed to go online in September, but the Wall Street Journal’s Siobhan Gorman reports that it has major electrical problems and that the facility known as “the country’s biggest spy center” is presently nearly unusable:

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.

Glenn Greenwald isn’t the only one dropping explosive material on the NSA. According to the Wall Street Journal, the data center’s electrical problems include “arc failures,” a.k.a. “a flash of lightning inside a 2-foot box,” which results in fiery explosions, melted metal and circuit failure. More terrifying, this has happened ten times, most recently on September 25, reports the WSJ, which reviewed project documents and reports and talked to contractors involved. The report blames the NSA “fast tracking” the Utah project and thus bypassing “regular quality controls in design and construction.” Whoops.

Worse, it sounds from the WSJ’s reporting as if the contractors — architectural firm KlingStubbins which designed the electrical system, along with construction companies Balfour Beatty Construction, DPR Construction and Big-D Construction Corp — are still scrambling to figure out what’s causing the problems. The Army Corps of Engineers sent its “Tiger Team” to sort things out this summer but they were unable to pinpoint exactly what’s wrong.

“The problem, and we all know it, is that they put the appliances too close together,” a person familar with the database construction told FORBES, describing the arcs as creating “kill zones.” “They used wiring that’s not adequate to the task. We all talked about the fact that it wasn’t going to work.”

“The Utah Data Center is one of the U.S. Defense Department’s largest ongoing construction projects in the continental United States,” says an NSA spokesperson. “This Intelligence Community facility will host the power, space, cooling, and communications needed to support specialized computing. The center sits on approximately 247 acres, includes 1.2 million square feet of enclosed space, and is completing acceptance testing. 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.”

When I wrote about the Utah data center holding less information than was previously thought given the current limitations of technology in this space, some critics scoffed. They suggested that the NSA is far more advanced in its technology than companies like Google and Facebook with which I was drawing comparisons. This report from the WSJ about the flawed plans for the data center encourages some skepticism about NSA tech. And it definitely raises questions about the NSA budget. The center itself cost over a billion dollars to build, has a $1 million+ monthly electricity bill, and has cost up to $100,000 each time a “kill zone” happens. Those numbers are as disturbing as the privacy concerns raised by the Snowden leaks.