Too Big to Succeed? Huge Laser for Weapons Tests Fails to Perform

Although the United States has not tested a nuclear weapon for twenty years, we still spend billions each year on an array of machines that conduct all kinds of diagnostic experiments to mimic nuclear explosions. One of the most expensive is called the National Ignition Facility (NIF).

The NIF, located at California's Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, is an enormous laser made up of 192 separate beams that are supposed to focus onto a BB-sized target of nuclear material in the hopes of setting off a tiny fusion explosion - just like those inside of nuclear bombs.

But the project's not working and people are starting to take note. Earlier this month the NIF received the kind of attention no program or business wants: reports that it is over-budget and not performing. The highest profile story was a New York Times editorial that laid out the checkered track record of NIF and questioned the value of spending any more tax dollars on it. This followed an earlier report in the Times that provided a thorough examination of the NIF’s goals, missed benchmarks, and the scrutiny it faces in Congress.  In short, the reports revealed that what had been projected in 1999 to cost around $1.2 billion has already consumed more than $5 billion. 

What’s more, the rationale for the NIF seems to shift depending on the audience. The government agency in charge of the project, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), has stated different things at different times. For some, it’s all about the Stockpile Stewardship program and ensuring safe, reliable warheads. To others, it’s about the quest for fusion energy, a potentially limitless and clean type of nuclear power. In either case, NIF is not making the grade – it was supposed to have achieved “ignition” by September 30 – a point where the energy emitted from the fusion reaction is greater than that used to initiate it. NIF is about an order of magnitude short of that.

The most recent story is perhaps the most damning of all – it comes from the scientific community itself and was published in early October in Physics Today, not your typical hostile outlet for science projects. In the article, NNSA officials are quoted as saying they aren’t sure why the laser hasn’t reached its goal. But putting a happy face on it, they claim “

we have some intriguing mysteries that are not due to the facility itself but are due to the separation between the modeling and simulations and the experimental data.

Unfortunately, American taxpayers are not paying to find “intriguing mysteries” with the NIF. We are paying, purportedly, for sound science for nuclear security goals and/or applied research on fusion energy. What’s perhaps most revealing of all is not only the story in Physics Today but the litany of reader comments by a seemingly well-informed audience of scientists and engineers. One states that “As a physicist myself, I have felt for many, many years that the NIF was going to fail in this regard (fusion) due to the overall complexity of the ignition system.” Another states that “the exercise did provide some jobs for a select few individuals over a period of time…”

Nuclear weapons tool? Energy source? Both? We need clear answers from the NNSA on these questions, but even more important, NIF is overdue for a clear-eyed assessment of whether it’s worth it. How many more billions for failure?

Photo by NNSANews