On December 13, the Department of Energy (DOE) and Livermore Lab held a press conference and, with maximum hoopla, announced that an experiment at the National Ignition Facility earlier that month had achieved fusion “ignition”.
Many people have contacted us in the days since to ask what actually happened – and what did not happen.
Based on the announcement, it appears that the 192 lasers at NIF, trained on a target capsule containing radioactive tritium, put 2.05 megajoules of energy into the capsule and created a sufficient number of fusion reactions inside the capsule to generate 3.15 megajoules of energy over the course of a few nanoseconds.
Many media outlets immediately “reported” the hype that (a) fusion as an energy source is just around the corner, (b) that nuclear fusion energy will be “clean,” and (c) that it will save us all from climate catastrophe. None of those things is even remotely true.
A few (very few) media outlets did report that when one considers the whole NIF system, including the energy consumed by the 192 lasers, there were about 400 megajoules of energy going into the experiment in order for the afore-noted 3.15 megajoules to come out of the capsule.
It’s fair to say that a significant scientific milestone did happen at NIF, but the rest is hype.
Moreover, none of the mainstream articles we have read so far (and we have read scores of them) discusses in any detail that the NIF is actually a nuclear weapons development facility, paid for by the DOE National Nuclear Security Administration as part of its nuclear weapons mission.
Further, many news outlets used DOE’s deceptive cost number of $3.5 billion for NIF. That’s the cost for the steel, glass and related hardware used in construction of the physical laser facility. When a conservative estimate is offered for the cost of construction plus NIF’s R&D and operational expenses, one quickly arrives a figure north of $11 billion. And when experimental costs borne at other DOE facilities to aid NIF are calculated, it’s off the charts.
The huge expenditure of our tax-dollars at NIF is more about nuclear weapons in the here-and-now than future fusion energy, which will not be laser-driven in any event.
Wading knowledgeably into the DOE hoopla is physicist MV Ramana, who is currently with the University of British Columbia and was previously at Princeton’s Nuclear Futures Laboratory and its Program on Science and Global Security, which is where some of us at Tri-Valley CAREs met him.
Shortly after DOE’s press conference, MV Ramana wrote this article for a science and tech magazine. For more information on what did and did not happen at NIF, we highly recommend it:
Update: On December 19, The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists published an interview in its newsletter that addressed the “Stockpile Stewardship” dimension of NIF’s role in nuclear weapons, though it was light on the role of NIF in nuclear weapons modernization, especially new warhead development. To read (including the “basically BS” comment about NIF and fusion power), CLICK HERE.
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