Comments on Some Comments on the National Ignition Facility

We live in a dauntingly complex world.  Progress in the world of science is relevant to all of us, yet it is extremely difficult, although certainly not impossible, for the intelligent layperson to gain a useful understanding of what is actually going on.  I say “not impossible” because I believe it’s possible for non-experts to gain enough knowledge to usefully contribute to the conversation about the technological and social relevance of a given scientific specialty, if not of its abstruse details, assuming they are willing to put in the effort.  Indeed, when it comes to social relevance it’s not out of the question for them to become more knowledgeable than the scientists themselves, narrowly focused as they often are on a particular specialty.

To illustrate my point, I invite my readers to take a look at a post that recently appeared on the blog LLNL – The True Story.  LLNL, or Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, is one of the nation’s three major nuclear weapons research laboratories.  It is also home of the National Ignition Facility, which, as its name implies, was designed to achieve fusion “ignition” by focusing a giant assembly of 192 powerful laser beams on tiny targets containing a mixture of deuterium and tritium fuel.  The process itself is called inertial confinement fusion, or ICF.  Ignition is variously defined, but as far as the NIF is concerned LLNL officially accepted the definition as fusion energy out equal to total laser energy in, in the presence of members of a National Academy of Sciences oversight committee.  This is a definition that puts it on a level playing field with the competing magnetic confinement approach to fusion.

According to the blurb that appears on the home page of LLNL – The True Story, its purpose is “for LLNL present and past employees, friends of LLNL and anyone impacted by the privatization of the Lab to express their opinions and expose the waste, wrongdoing and any kind of injustice against employees and taxpayers by LLNS/DOE/NNSA.”  The post in question is entitled ICF Program is now Officially Owned by WCI (Weapons and Concepts Integration).  It’s certainly harmless enough as it stands, consisting only of the line,

ICF program is now officially owned by WCI.  A step forward or an attempt to bury it out of sight?

This is followed by an apparently broken link to the story referred to.  This gist can probably be found here.  Presumably the author suspects LLNL might want to “bury it out of sight” because the first attempt to achieve ignition, known as the National Ignition Campaign, or NIC, failed to achieve its goal.  What’s really of interest is not the post itself, but the comments following it.  The commenters are all listed as “anonymous,” but given the nature of the blog we can probably assume that most of them are scientists of one tribe or another.  Let’s take a look at what they have to say.  According to the first “anonymous,”

If (takeover of NIF by WCI) is an attempt to keep funding flowing by switching milestones from energy independence to weapons research.  “Contingency Plan B”.

Another “anonymous” writes in a similar vein:

Reading between the lines it is clear that the new energy source mission of the NIF is over and now it’s time to justify the unjustifiable costs by claiming it’s a great too for weapons research.

Perhaps the second commenter would have done better to read the lines as they stand rather than between them.  In that case he would have noticed that energy independence was never an official NIF milestone, not to mention its “mission.”  NIF was funded for the purpose of weapons research from the start.  This fact was never in any way a deep, dark secret, and has long been obvious to anyone willing to take the trouble to consult the relevant publicly accessible documents.  The Inertial Confinement Fusion Advisory Committee, a Federal Advisory Committee that met intermittently in the early to mid-90’s, and whose member included a bevy of heavyweights in plasma physics and related specialties, was certainly aware of the fact, and recommended funding of the facility with the single dissenting vote of Tim Coffey, then Director of the Naval Research Laboratory, based on that awareness.

Be that as it may, the claim that the technology could also end our dependence on fossil fuel, often made by the NIF’s defenders, is credible.  By “credible” I mean that many highly capable scientists have long held and continue to hold that opinion.  As it happens, I don’t.  Assuming we find a way to achieve ignition and high gain in the laboratory, it will certainly become scientifically feasible to generate energy with ICF power plants.  However, IMHO it will never be economically feasible, for reasons I have outline in earlier posts.  Regardless, from a public relations standpoint, it was obviously preferable to evoke the potential of the NIF as a clean source of energy rather than a weapons project designed to maintain the safety and reliability of our nuclear arsenal, as essential as that capability may actually be.  In spite of my own personal opinion on the subject, these claims were neither disingenuous nor mere “hype.”

Another “anonymous” writes,

What’s this user facility bullshit about?  Only Livermore uses the facility.  Cost recovery demands that a university would have to pay $1 million for a shot.  How can it be a user facility if it’s run by the weapons program?  This isn’t exactly SLAC we’re talking about.

Here, again, the commenter is simply wrong.  Livermore is not the only user of NIF, and it is, in fact, a user facility.  Users to date include a team from MIT headed by Prof. Richard Petrasso.  I’m not sure how the users are currently funded, but in the past funds for experiments on similar facilities were allocated through a proposal process, similar to that used to fund other government-funded academic research.  The commenter continues,

By the way, let’s assume NIF wants to be a “user facility” for stockpile stewardship.  Since ignition is impossible, the EOS (Equation of State, relevant to the physics of nuclear weapons, ed.) work is garbage, and the temperatures are not relevant to anything that goes bang, what use is this machine?

NIF does not “want to be a user facility for stockpile stewardship.”  Stress has always been on high energy density physics (HEDP), which has many other potential applications besides stockpile stewardship.  I was not surprised that NIF did not achieve ignition immediately.  In fact I predicted as much in a post on this blog two years before the facility became operational.  However, many highly competent scientists disagreed with me, and for credible scientific reasons.  The idea that ignition is “impossible” just because it wasn’t achieved in the first ignition campaign using the indirect drive approach is nonsense.  Several other credible approaches have not yet even been tried, including polar direct drive, fast ignitor, and hitting the targets with green (frequency doubled) rather than blue (frequency tripled) light.  The latter approach would enable a substantial increase in the available laser energy on target.  The EOS work is not garbage, as any competent weapons designer will confirm as long as they are not determined to force the resumption of nuclear testing by hook or by crook, and some of the best scientists at Livermore confirmed long ago that the temperatures  achievable on the NIF are indeed relevant to things that go bang, whether it achieves ignition or not.  In fact, the facility allows us to access physical conditions that can be approached in the laboratory nowhere else on earth, giving us a significant leg up over the international competition in maintaining a safe and reliable arsenal, as long as testing is not resumed.

Anonymous number 4 chimes in,

I love this quote (apparently from the linked article, ed.):

“the demonstration of laboratory ignition and its use to support the Stockpile Stewardship Program (SSP) is a major goal for this program”

Hey guys, this has already failed.  Why are we still spending money on this?  A lot of other laboratories could use the $$.  You’re done.

The quote this “anonymous” loves is a simple statement of fact.  For the reasons already cited, the idea that ignition on the NIF is hopeless is nonsense.  The (very good) reason we’re still spending money on the project is that NIF is and will continue into the foreseeable future to be one of the most capable and effective above ground experimental (AGEX) facilities in the world.  It can access physical conditions relevant to nuclear weapons regardless of whether it achieves ignition or not.  For that reason it is an invaluable tool for maintaining our arsenal unless one’s agenda happens to be the resumption of nuclear testing.  Hint:  The idea that no one in DOE, NNSA, or the national weapons laboratories wants to resume testing belongs in the realm of fantasy.  Consider, for example, what the next “anonymous” is actually suggesting:

Attempting to get funding for NIF and computations’s big machines was made easier by claiming dual purposes but I always felt that the real down and dirty main purpose was weapons research.  If you want to get support from the anti-weapon Feinstein/Boxer/Pelosi contingent you need to put the “energy” lipstick on the pig.  Or we could go back to testing.  Our cessation of testing doesn’t seem to have deterred North Korea and Iran that much.

Yes, Virginia, even scientists occasionally do have agendas of their own.  What can I say?  To begin, I suppose, that one should never be intimidated by the pontifications of scientists.  The specimens on display here clearly don’t have a clue what they’re talking about.  Any non-technical observer of middling intelligence could become more knowledgeable than they are on the topics they’re discussing by devoting a few hours to researching them on the web.  As to how the non-technical observer is to acquire enough knowledge to actually know that he knows more than the scientific specialists, I can offer no advice, other than to head to your local university and acquire a Ph.D.  I am, BTW, neither employed by nor connected in any other way with LLNL.


Author: Helian

I am Doug Drake, and I live in Maryland, not far from Washington, DC. I am a graduate of West Point, and I hold a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Wisconsin. My blog reflects my enduring fascination with human nature and human morality.

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