It appears the dedication ceremony for the National Ignition Facility (NIF) has come and gone, but a rather important guest who had promised to be there turned up missing. I refer to Secretary Chu, avatar of alternative energy (er, politically correct alternative energy that is). At the last moment he discovered that he was “too busy” to attend, (or did he get a headache, I forget?).
True, the NIF was built as a weapons facility, and that’s a big strike against it in the warm, fuzzy world of today. That’s not the whole story, though. The “ignition” in National Ignition Facility means inertial fusion ignition, and a great number of dedicated scientists have devoted their careers to the proposition that fusion ignition will usher in an era of clean energy with a virtually limitless fuel supply. I, personally, find that proposition dubious, at least with the hot spot ignition approach currently envisioned for the NIF. However, a lot of outstanding scientists who probably know more of the relevant physics than I are not similarly dubious, and believe the daunting technical, economic, and engineering hurdles on the path to inertial fusion energy can be overcome.
Now, 35 long, difficult years after the first confirmation of fusion neutrons produced by laser implosion, we finally have an operational facility capable, according to the theorists, of achieving significant energy gain, and we stand on the threshold of the decisive series of ignition experiments that are likely to determine whether they’re right or wrong once and for all. It seems to me that those who have dedicated their lives to a goal they believe will be of incalculable value to all mankind should now, at least, be given a fair shot at achieving that goal. The tool they need is in their hands. Given what’s at stake, not to mention the massive amounts we’ve recently been spending on far less worthy goals, does it not seem logical to give them a chance?
Perhaps Secretary Chu does not agree. It would certainly seem so. NNSA, a part of DOE, manages the NIF, and its budget has been cut to the bare bones. This budget slashing cannot help but affect the coming campaign of ignition experiments at the facility. Well, then, if Secretary Chu does not agree, perhaps it would better befit the leader that he is supposed to be to stand up and explain why, instead of playing hide and seek at dedication ceremonies. Those who have worked long and faithfully to make this project a reality deserve no less.