National Ignition Facility seeks new cash
San Francisco Chronicle
Tuesday, December 4, 2012
elusive effort to mimic the explosive violence of hydrogen bombs inside
Livermore's giant National Ignition Facility, long delayed, now faces
intense scrutiny by a dollar-conscious Congress.
Nuclear Security Agency in charge of the Lawrence Livermore National
Laboratory says in a draft report to Congress that the lab's scientists
should conduct at least three more years of experiments. An estimated $5
billion or more has been spent over the past 10 years to build and run
the project called NIF, and current experiments are running at least
$450 million a year.
Congress had set the end of this year as the
deadline for "ignition," as the goal is termed. Now the nuclear
agency's report says the extension is needed for NIF scientists to
consider two very different and untried technical approaches to the
extraordinarily complex physics problems that have prevented them so far
from achieving their goal of duplicating the explosion of an H-bomb in
Congressional experts are reviewing the report and some
are highly skeptical about its eventual success. The final report from
the nuclear security agency is expected early next week, when
congressional staff specialists will begin considering its implications
for NIF's future.
NIF's goal is still "very, very far away," said
one congressional expert who follows the technical details closely. The
expert, who asked to remain anonymous because he was not authorized to
speak publicly about the project, complained that the nuclear agency
appears to be asking Congress for a "blank check" until at least 2015.
asking us to give them a blank check ... and then we'd see where we
are," the expert said. "That worries me. They're not even close."
ultimate aim of NIF's nuclear weapons scientists is to understand the
obscure physics involved in thermonuclear fusion, validate related
computer codes, and thereby assure the safety and reliability of
America's aging weapons stockpile without the underground bomb tests
that are now banned by international treaty...
But after 35
experiments and more than 1,000 laser shots since NIF scientists began
three years ago, the effort has fallen short. In order to achieve
ignition, the laser beams would have to produce between three and 10
times more energy and heat than they have been able to accomplish, the
Just where the problems lie remains a mystery. A
national committee of laser experts headed by Stanford physicist Robert
L. Byer recently had high praise for the NIF laser's "robust operation"
and said it has "met and exceeded its design goals." The NIF scientists,
the committee concluded, are on a credible path toward upgrading the
laser array to reach the energies needed for ignition...
project director Ed Moses declined to comment on the report until its
final version is complete. But he said it's impossible to make
predictions about success in any field where such complex science is
In experiments so far, the laser shots fired at
target after target have yielded pressures 15o billion times Earth's
atmosphere, he said, but pressures twice as high are still needed for
But NIF's giant laser array is now performing
spectacularly, he said, and its total output of energy and power is
"more than we need," Moses said.
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