WASHINGTON, DC, April 2, 2009 – The Department of Energy (DoE) announced the completion of what they are calling the world’s largest laser and the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) has certified its completion, but that doesn't mean everyone is happy about it.
Housed at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, the National Ignition Facility (NIF) is expected to allow scientists to achieve fusion ignition in the laboratory, obtaining more energy from the target than is provided by the laser.
According to the DoE, the completion of NIF opens the door to scientific advancement and discovery that promises to enhance our national security, could help break America’s dependence on foreign oil, and will lead to new breakthroughs in the worlds of astrophysics, materials science and many other scientific disciplines.
Composite photo showing all three floors containing the 264,000-lb, 10-m-diameter target chamber. Diagnostic instruments will be attached to the round hatches. Photo montage courtesy of Jacqueline McBride.
“Completion of the National Ignition Facility is a true milestone that will make America safer and more energy independent by opening new avenues of scientific advancement and discovery,” said Thomas D’Agostino, NNSA administrator. “NIF will be a cornerstone of a critical national security mission, ensuring the continuing reliability of the U.S. nuclear stockpile without underground nuclear testing, while also providing a path to explore the frontiers of basic science, and potential technologies for energy independence.”
However, not everyone is singing its praises. A non-profit environmental group called Tri-Valley CAREs (Communities Against a Radioactive Environment) has said they believe the giant laser will pose health and environmental risks to LLNL workers and nearby residents.
“There will be experiments with plutonium, highly enriched uranium and thorium as well as fusion fuels,” Marylia Kelley, executive director of Tri-Valley CAREs told the San Francisco Chronicle. “The laboratory's own documents show that there will be increased radioactive releases because of the use of these fissile materials as well as the fusion materials inside the target chamber.
“These experiments will generate radioactive emissions and radioactive waste,” she told the newspaper. “So there is a valid environmental concern.”
But lab officials say the $3.5 billion laser has endured reviews by distinguished scientists and that the experiments will be safe.
In a published analysis, the former head of laser fusion at the US Naval Research Laboratory, Stephen Bodner wrote, “According to (LLNL’s) own data, the laser beams did not meet the minimum requirements needed to test their ignition target design. Their claims that the laser has met its specifications are not correct. They have recently changed their target design, apparently to try to match the poor performance of their NIF laser. This latest ignition target design is also very unlikely to be consistent with the real laser performance.”
Laser Bay 2, one of NIF's two laser bays, was commissioned on July 31, 2007. Each laser bay is approximately 400 ft long. (Photo: Lawrence Livermore National Security, LLNL/DoE)
Other critics say the laser was not designed to achieve the scientific goals for which it was built, including determining the reliability of the nation's aging nuclear weapons stockpile.
According to the NNSA, NIF is a critical part of maintaining the safety and reliability of our nuclear deterrent without conducting nuclear testing. The US has not deployed a new nuclear weapon in over 20 years, nor conducted an underground nuclear test since 1992. Instead, scientists at the NNSA maintain the warheads in the stockpile well beyond their original life by using sophisticated supercomputers and facilities that test the safety, security and reliability of US weapons in NNSA laboratories.
They say that with NIF, scientists will be able to evaluate key scientific assumptions in current computer models, obtain previously unavailable data on how materials behave at temperatures and pressures like those in the center of a star, and help validate NNSA’s supercomputer simulations by comparing code predictions against observations from laboratory experiments.
NIF also has the potential to produce breakthroughs in fields beyond national security, according to reports from the DoE. It may help advance fusion energy technology, which could be an element of making the United States energy independent. It could also help scientists better understand the makeup of stars and giant planets both within and outside our solar system.
The stadium-sized NIF is capable of focusing all of its 192 individual beams, each about 40 centimeters square, into a spot about one-half millimeter in diameter at the center of its 10 meter diameter target chamber. NIF has the ability to deliver large amounts of energy with extreme precision in billionths of a second.
NIF has already reported historic scientific advances. Earlier this month, NIF became the first fusion laser in the world to break the megajoule barrier (a megajoule is the energy consumed by 10,000 100-W light bulbs in one second) by delivering 1.1 million joules of ultraviolet energy to the center of its target chamber – more than 25 times more energy than the previous record-holder.
For more information, visit: www.llnl.gov