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Experts Clash on Value of National Ignition Facility

Photonics Spectra
Jul 2007
Breck Hitz

The National Ignition Facility (NIF) is the huge laser being built at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, Calif. (see “World’s Largest Laser,” Photonics Spectra, June 2006, page 50). Its goal of “ignition” will be achieved when its 192 laser beams focus sufficient energy on a tiny deuterium/tritium pellet to cause the hydrogen nuclei to fuse, releasing more fusion energy than the laser applied in the first place.

NIF is a major component of the Stockpile Stewardship Program, a US Department of Energy (DoE) project intended to maintain the nation’s existing nuclear weapons. The Federation of American Scientists recently completed a report that is critical of NIF for being behind schedule and over budget, and of questionable value to the maintenance of nuclear weapons. Those findings, however, are diametrically opposite of those in a report from the National Research Council of the National Academies that will be published in final form later this year.

There is no question that NIF is behind its original schedule and over its initial budget. When it began in 1996, the program was supposed to cost $1.07 billion and be completed in 2002. Today, the first experiments are scheduled for 2010, and the projected cost for getting from here to there is probably greater than the original budget for the entire project. Many of NIF’s problems were evident in the program’s early years. According to the Federation report, “The Stockpile Stewardship Program: Fifteen Years on,” NIF officials hid emerging technical problems from the DoE and lied about them to Energy Secretary Bill Richardson. NIF’s first program manager, Michael Campbell, was discovered not to have earned the PhD he claimed on his résumé and was forced to step down.

Ed Moses replaced Campbell in 1999, and the Federation report acknowledges that he addressed many of NIF’s most persistent problems. An ongoing problem with contamination of the optics was solved and, although other problems have appeared, the Federation report now concludes that “there appears to be no outstanding foreseeable problem with NIF.” The report cautions, however, that nothing will be certain until successful fusion experiments take place.

A 2005 Jason panel was likewise cautiously favorable toward the NIF program, concluding that its success in 2010 was likely, but not guaranteed. Based on this conclusion as well as on other studies and its own research, the Federation summarizes in its report that “NIF may be on the road to recovery and appears to be coming on line, albeit slowly.”

Although many of NIF’s technical and management issues may be approaching solution, the Federation report still questions the project’s overall relevance to preservation and maintenance of the nation’s nuclear weapons. Although agreeing that NIF may provide needed confirmation of computer models of some aspects of nuclear reactions — the energy transfer from x-rays to electrons, for example — the report contends that many of the conditions in NIF are different from those that would be present in a nuclear weapon.

The Federation report also questions the validity of another stated NIF goal; namely, attracting new scientific and engineering talent to the nation’s vital weapons program. Based on “anecdotal evidence,” the report says that the DoE labs are not widely viewed as scientists’ first choice for doing original research. “The physics community is not championing NIF,” the report states flatly. Moreover, most of the resources going into NIF address relatively mundane engineering problems, such as cleanrooms, vacuum pumps and power supplies, according to the report.

Civilian applications

Finally, the Federation report notes in passing that an oft-stated secondary justification for NIF is the development of a fusion-power capability for civilian applications. The report’s authors explain that the evaluation of that justification is far outside the scope of their report, but they emphasize that NIF’s financial justification, and its financial support, is because of the Stockpile Stewardship Program.

The National Research Council, in its report “Plasma Science: Advancing Knowledge in the National Interest,” finds that NIF is “crucial” to the Stockpile Stewardship Program. NIF experiments will enable a better understanding of the dynamics of radiation transport, secondary implosion and ignition, and the dynamics of aging in nuclear weapons.

Moreover, while the Research Council cites nothing stronger than the vague “anecdotal evidence” alluded to in the Federation report, it asserts that NIF does, in fact, help maintain the skills of today’s nuclear weapons experts and that it attracts bright young physicists to the field. The Research Council report also points out that NIF is to be used 10 to 15 percent of the time for basic science experiments not directly related to stockpile stewardship. These experiments, the report says, will lead to rich cross-fertilization between university physicists and those at the national laboratories.

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