Another part of the nuclear weapons complex is in deep trouble.
For the scientists at the National Ignition Facility (a part of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory), a typical work day consists of attempting to “creat[e] a miniature star on Earth. ” Clearly no easy task, however, the deadline for the “ignition” part of the project of September 30, 2012 has now come and gone — leaving the future of this project hanging in the balance.
At the National Ignition Facility (NIF), scientists take hydrogen atoms, shoot 192 laser beams at them, and if all goes well, produces a controlled nuclear fusion (yes, the kind in nuclear bombs) capable of emitting gargantuan amounts of energy. If successful, this experiment could enable us to determine whether nuclear fusion is a potential source of alternative energy. Unfortunately, the project has not yet reached this point after approximately three years and five billion dollars of federal funding.
Those involved with the project claim the passing of the September 30 deadline can be chalked up to the difficulty of predicting scientific breakthroughs, as quoted in William Broad’s September 29th New York Times article. Broad sheds light on the scientists’ defense of the program, citing its utility as a potential energy source as well as contributions to the maintenance of the United States nuclear arsenal. If it is concluded that the NIF cannot contribute significantly to reducing American dependence on oil, advocates for the program argue that this facility can aid the Stockpile Stewardship Program meant to maintain reliability of nuclear weapons in the absence of testing.
Enter noted scientist, Richard Garwin, to accuse the NIF of an unremarkable potential for contributions to Stockpile Stewardship. Garwin elaborates in a 2006 IEEE article: “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.” In response, the physicists at the laboratory speak of their ability to infer results and knowledge of atomic properties. Regardless, there is little to prove that this facility will produce useful information. As such, it has acquired the nickname “National Almost Ignition Facility”.
Amidst the heated debate even among the preeminent scientists, there are growing Congressional concerns about the bottom line. The facility is costing about $290 million annually, and NIF’s failures could not come at a more inconvenient time. The highly divided Congress must come to a consensus on dealing with the federal deficit or face automatic budget cuts at the end of the year. A project not vital to the economy will be hard pressed to survive in this climate.
Scientific research undoubtedly has its place, but the 21st century does not need to emulate the “Space Race.” In Broad’s article, the laser’s director at the Livermore Laboratory emphasized that China, France and Russia all are trying to achieve similar goals using the NIF model. The question remains then, why can we not work together to find alternative energy sources? As the Earth as a whole depletes its resources, it would behoove us to stop viewing energy as a zero-sum game.