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National lab project is unlikely to produce results and is being misrepresented, allegedly

California's Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) -- located on the grounds of the University of California, Berkley (UC Berkley) -- is the center of a growing controversy regarding a $7B USD laser fusion project, dubbed the "National Ignition Facility" (NIF).

I. LLNL Says Project is Near Fusion, IEEE Editor Says "No Way"

The project -- launched 15 years ago in 1997 -- has yet to achieve "ignition"; the point at which the laser-confined fusion produces more energy than it consumes.  And it carries a sticker price of $290M+ USD per year in operating costs.

But those issues didn't stop LLNL from releasing a cheerful press release, proclaiming:

Fifteen years of work by the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory's National Ignition Facility (NIF) team paid off on July 5 with a historic record-breaking laser shot. The NIF laser system of 192 beams delivered more than 500 trillion watts (terawatts or TW) of peak power and 1.85 megajoules (MJ) of ultraviolet laser light to its target. Five hundred terawatts is 1,000 times more power than the United States uses at any instant in time, and 1.85 megajoules of energy is about 100 times what any other laser regularly produces today.

The release was hardly coincidental.  It came just months ago, in hopes of swaying Congress, which is presently deciding whether to sustain funding for the troubled project.

NIF Laser pre-amps
Pre-amplifiers are pictured pumping up the power to the LLNL's record-setting laser.  But is all that power being wasted on pipe dreams? [Image Source: LLNL]

But according to IEEE Spectrum editor Bill Sweet, a veteran of India's nuclear power development project, most physicists view laser-contained (aka. "inertial confinement") fusion ignition as a pipe dream.  He argues that most agree that magnetic confinement fusion is far more likely to be realized, though still a difficult problem.  

William Broad, chief nuclear issues reporter for The New York Times, agrees.  He writes that the National Nuclear Security Administration's project overseer, Donald L. Cook, has serious concerns.  He quotes Mr. Cook as saying, that even with the latest power milestone considered, the project simply "has not worked", and that the NNSA is "going to settle into a serious investigation" of the NIF's sliding ignition deadline.

II. Protecting the Nuclear Stockpile?  Maybe Not...

Mr. Sweet also takes issue with LLNL's other justification for the project -- that it provides a test-bed to simulate nuclear weapons performance, a key national security goal.  

LLNL comments, "[The NIF] is the only facility with the potential to duplicate the actual phenomena that occur in the heart of a modern nuclear device -- a goal that is critical to sustaining confidence that a return to underground nuclear testing remains unnecessary."

But Mr. Sweet counters, "Richard Garwin, for decades the most highly regarded independent specialist on nuclear weaponry in the United States, told IEEE Spectrum six years ago that it would be 'a mistake to assume that NIF experiments are going to be directly relevant to weapons testing. The temperatures in the NIF chamber are much lower than they are in actual nuclear weapons, and the amounts of material being tested are much smaller.'"

He adds, "For decades the joke about magnetic confinement fusion--much the more plausible approach to harnessing the energy of the sun--is that the technology is always 20 years away. So when will inertial confinement fusion be delivering commercial electricity? That one is easy. Never."

NIF lasers
Congress is debating whether to scrap the NIF. [Image Source: LLNL]

It sounds like there's some serious credibility question regarding the project's security and energy claims.  That said, there might be some merit to the project, even if Mr. Sweet is at least partially right.  

UC Berkley astronomy Professor Dr. Raymond Jeanloz, comments, "Already the most incredibly tightly controlled and most energetic laser in the world, it is remarkable that NIF has achieved the 500 TW milestone - quite a significant achievement.  This breakthrough will give us incredible new opportunities in studying materials at extreme conditions."

Indeed, from a pure science perspective, the device is a pretty impressive accomplishment, even if it turns out its fusion goals are indeed pipe dreams.  It could indeed yield some novel materials research, if it escapes this round of funding reviews.  Ultimately the issue appears not so much that the super-laser lacks novelty, but rather that its critics argue that it is being misrepresented.  For that reason, Mr. Sweet infers, the NIF is the "mother of all boondoggles".

Sources: IEEE Spectrum, LLNL, The New York Times

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RE: I'm fine with this
By Reclaimer77 on 10/9/2012 5:25:28 PM , Rating: 1
You keep making this argument, and it's idiotic. Your tax money goes to the Federal Government, which it then redistributes in a variety of ways. But to keep making the statement that your tax dollars "props up" southern states exclusively, is typically for you, bigoted and retarded. And not nearly accurate.

I also pay a lot of taxes, five figures, a year to the federal government alone.

And yet, you're still a Liberal. Brilliant...

RE: I'm fine with this
By corduroygt on 10/9/12, Rating: 0
RE: I'm fine with this
By Reclaimer77 on 10/9/2012 5:43:13 PM , Rating: 2
so it's obviously going to prop up the red states.

No, it's not. That not how it works. But you're so clouded with ignorant hate and bigotry, you won't listen. And frankly discussing things seriously with you is a waste of time.

There are very few blue states that take more federal money than they pay in taxes,

Umm since when?

RE: I'm fine with this
By corduroygt on 10/9/2012 5:58:39 PM , Rating: 2
That link says nothing about FEDERAL tax money collected from each state's residents/businesses and how it's distributed. The blue states would not have budget shortfalls if their federal tax revenue came back to their state instead of to red states.

Try this:

RE: I'm fine with this
By Reclaimer77 on 10/9/2012 6:11:35 PM , Rating: 2
The blue states would not have budget shortfalls if their federal tax revenue came back to their state instead of to red states.


You're too much! Have a nice day, I'm done lol. Just..WoW


RE: I'm fine with this
By shmmy on 10/9/2012 9:04:59 PM , Rating: 2
Don't argue with Reclaimer its like arguing with a child. He knows everything and you are stupid..........

RE: I'm fine with this
By phlogiston on 10/9/2012 6:39:28 PM , Rating: 2
Instead of labeling everyone who disagrees with you a white-trash idiot, maybe you should consider both sides have equally valid arguments. Which side you identify with has more to do with your value system than with "rightness" or "wrongness." The ironic thing is, both liberals and conservatives NEED the other to provide some perspective that each group lacks.

Unfortunately, debate in this country has descended into name-calling and character assassination. Thoughtful consideration of other points of view is too difficult, too taxing. It's much easier to label all red states "Dumbf**kistan" or all blue states the "Democratic Peoples Republic of America" than actually think.

Eveyone who argues politics on DailyTech should take a look at this TED talk, for some food for thought:

"We basically took a look at this situation and said, this is bullshit." -- Newegg Chief Legal Officer Lee Cheng's take on patent troll Soverain

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