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DoE Counters Fusion Facility Injunction

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R. Winn Hardin

LIVERMORE, Calif. -- The US Department of Energy (DoE) has asked a federal district court judge to remove an injunction that keeps the agency from using a report on the technical feasibility of the National Ignition Facility.
An attorney for the plaintiffs in the suit said the DoE's action sends mixed signals regarding the findings of the report, submitted by the National Academy of Sciences. "They're trying to make two arguments: that they're being harmed because they want to use the information in the report, but they're not being harmed because the decision to construct has already been made. They're trying to have it both ways," said Howard Crystal, who represents the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Tri-Valley Citizens Against a Radioactive Environment and the Western States Legal Foundation.
Spokesmen for the groups have questioned the facility on several points, including the bias of several review committee members and the feasibility of laser-induced fusion.
In addition to several shortcomings with the facility, the report suggests several experiments that may improve the chances of igniting a fusion target. The DoE simply wants to use the report as a guideline to strengthen the project where necessary. If the judge declines to lift the injunction, the energy department has requested a ruling on whether or not subcontractors (labs, etc.) also can use the report for additional experiments needed to move forward with the project.
The plaintiffs contend that the committee's closed-door review of the National Ignition Facility's technical feasibility violated the public deliberations section of the Federal Advisory Committee Act. Arguments came to a head in March when Federal District Court Judge Paul Friedman agreed to issue a preliminary injunction, stopping DoE from using the report but not from making it public.

Committee findings

The report itself seems imbued with some of the conflicts that have plagued the program. Although it concludes that the National Ignition Facility should be pursued and that none of the technical problems are "showstoppers," the report says nearly all the program components fall below the performance levels necessary to reach ignition. Among the committee's findings are:
  • Design changes mean that the laser does not meet several experimental objectives. As part of the Nova technical contract, designers set up two sets of experimental objectives or milestones: one dealing with hohlraum laser physics, the other with hydrodynamic equivalent physics relevant to the radioactive target. Because of changes to the target's container, the Nova lasers no longer meet several "milestones ... and others are, at best, barely met."
  • The design meets four out of five objectives dealing with the physics of the radioactive capsule. The last objective, which has only been half met, concerns the geometry needed to properly converge the beams on the target.
  • Existing computers cannot create the required algorithms or models to prove that the facility will reach ignition. "Current three-dimensional computer codes are inadequate for integrated calculations of ignition; their improvement will contribute significantly to increasing the probability of ignition."
  • And while the Nova Beamlet has proved that beams will work as designed, several questions remain regarding the final focusing optics' quick-growth potassium dihydrogen phosphate crystals. During a test last year, focusing optics exploded during testing.
    The report goes on to say that additional experiments in computer modeling, multibeam configurations, optics, capsule structure and target preparation will help ease many of the committee's concerns. A beam- smoothing experiment using 10 Nova beams is set for later this year.
    The DoE has begun clearing the site for the proposed $1.1 billion National Ignition Facility.

  • Photonics Spectra
    May 1997
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