Reading Room

Beware of Geeks Bearing NIFs

Tri-Valley CAREs has tracked the rise of the Department of Energy's (DOE) multi-billion dollar program for new weapons facilities at the national labs (see, for example, Citizen's Watch from March, October and May, 1996). The program, known euphemistically as "Science Based Stockpile Stewardship (SBSS)," is a far-flung attempt to keep nuclear weapons research dollars flowing to the labs and to employ nuclear weaponeers in dangerous pursuits that the country does not need. Furthermore, DOE claims its growing SBSS is "necessary" to ensure the "safety" and "reliability" of the existing nuclear stockpile, due to the constraints of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. The cornerstone of the SBSS program is a giant laser facility called the National Ignition Facility, or NIF. Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory is the preferred site for this artifact of the Cold War. Tri-Valley CAREs has redoubled its research and analysis effort to focus specifically on the NIF and investigate - and refute - the claims made for this costly Rube Goldberg of a machine.

NIF would be an extremely large, exotic - and expensive - laser. Construction costs alone are now projected to be over $1.2 billion, and total lifetime costs are projected to exceed $4.6 billion. NIF would produce about 1.8 million joules of energy - about 40 times the that of the Nova laser, the Lab's currently operating nuclear weapons laser facility. For NIF, a new, football stadium-sized building would house a complicated array of a minimum of 192 lasers, some 10,000 individual optics components, electrical energy supply units, and a reactor vessel, called the target chamber.

The goal is to achieve thermonuclear "ignition"

Ignition is defined as a sustained fusion reaction of atoms of deuterium and radioactive tritium. Each are isotopes of hydrogen that are light and thus are capable of being "fused." A fusion reaction, unlike nuclear fission, binds two atoms together and, in the case of the above mentioned "D-T reaction," creates a new atom of helium and releases energy and a neutron. This is the same nuclear reaction that occurs in the secondary part of a nuclear weapon explosion, that which makes it a "hydrogen bomb."

To date, all fusion experiments have required more energy to run than they produce. NIF, it is claimed by the Livermore Lab, will reach the break even point and beyond, producing more energy than it takes to start the reaction. If and when NIF's 192 laser beams converge onto a small cylinder called a "hohlraum" in the target chamber, the energy will be converted into a uniform bath of x-rays. These x-rays will focus immense heat and pressure onto the BB-sized radioactive fuel sphere. When the outer surface of the fuel pellet is heated, electrons are stripped away and an envelope of plasma is created. This super-heated plasma literally blows off and away from the rest of the fuel sphere - this is called ablation. When the plasma blows off, the fuel sphere is compressed and heated further, reaching densities about 20 times that of lead and temperatures around 212,000,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Theoretically, at these densities and temperatures fusion could occur - creating a miniature nuclear explosion.

NIF presents a variety of serious problems

First, it is immensely expensive. The DOE recently increased its estimates of NIF's cost - simply to build - from $1.1 to $1.2 billion. And no construction has begun yet! Annual operating costs are said to be over $115 million. When the 30 year life span of the project is tallied up, it swells to over $4.6 billion. This is a theft of money that could be used for worthwhile and productive programs such as the environmental clean up at the Lab or research into energy sources


Add $100 Million More

The price of building the NIF is going through the roof, and the mega-laser hasn't even left the drawing board . This month, laser designers announced blueprint changes totalling about $100 million in added construction costs.

This is the latest in a series of ever- escalating price estimates. Three years ago, the Lab pegged construction at $677 million; two years ago the estimate rose to $900 million, rising again shortly thereafter to $1.1 billion. Currently it sits at $1.2 billion, and that number is likely to inflate further.

How much money to throw the switch on this behemoth? Cost estimates for operating NIF have similarly skyrocketed over the same period of time. Officials originally cited a figure of $60 million a year. However, following consultations with the Office of Management and Budget, DOE revised that figure upward, essentially doubling it to $115 million per year. Over NIF's thirty year life cycle, the price tag is now expected to run $4.6 billionand still escalating. The Lab is lobbying in Washington, D.C. today for increases to its 1998 budget. Can anyone say, "budgetary black hole"? Can anyone say, "stop"?

The most recent set of laser design changes includes a new stacking arrangement inside the stadium-sized facility for NIF's 192 beams, also called arms. Instead of four high and twelve across, the new plans call for a four-by-two design. According to the Lab, this will increase compatibility with the French Megajoule laser and enhance joint research opportunities.

Given that the Lab's one-arm prototype, called Beamlet, has suffered two major blow-outs in recent trial runs, one might speculate too that designers are trying to create more room for technicians to climb in to fix the darn thing.

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that are truly "green" such as solar and wind power. Continued spending on advanced nuclear weapons programs stymies any movement toward conversion of the Lab away from a defense mission to urgently needed civilian technologies.

Second, despite DOE's gee-whiz technical explanations and propaganda about endless energy ("safe, clean and too cheap to meter," remember that promise?) for the future, the NIF faces daunting technical challenges. Already two major accidents have literally blown up parts of the Lab's prototype, one arm Beamlet during preliminary tests; NIF will need at least 192 of these beamlets to operate. Design of the fuel targets, imperfections in the many thousands of glass optics required, and instabilities in the plasma are all challenges that have yet to be overcome.

Third, NIF presents serious non-proliferation problems. NIF is promoted by DOE as a tool for ensuring the "safety" and "reliability" of the nuclear stockpile, yet it is clear from DOE's and the Lab's own documents that NIF cannot usefully be applied to nuclear weapons safety or reliability problems. Moreover, although DOE now claims that the NIF cannot help to advance nuclear weapons design, most of the early rationale for building it centered on its weapons design and weapons effects testing capabilities. NIF is being paid for out of Defense Programs funds as a "nuclear weapons activity." Official Lab and DOE documents state NIF's weapons mission quite clearly. The Livermore Lab Institutional Plan, for example, says NIF's prime purpose is "to play an essential role in accessing physics regimes of interest in nuclear weapon design and to provide nuclear weapon-related physics data, particularly in the area of secondary design." And, NIF's second listed mission? To "provide an above-ground simulation capability for nuclear weapon effects on strategic, tactical and space assets..."

In a nutshell, NIF can't do what DOE now claims it's for, and it can do what DOE doesn't want to admit.

NIF's capabilities, and the hypocritical nature of the entire Science Based Stockpile Stewardship program, are extremely provocative to the international community. U.S. pursuit of newer and more advanced nuclear weapons facilities will undermine the process for entry into force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. NIF, as a way to continue advancing weapons expertise, enables

the U.S. to do an "end run" around the CTBT. Perhaps even more compelling, constructing the NIF would allow the Lab to begin studying advanced weapons concepts such as pure fusion energy weapons and third-generation "directed energy" weapons. Several signatories to the CTBT have lodged formal objections to the U.S. plans for SBSS, and to NIF in particular.

Fourth, NIF is an environmental and safety liability. DOE's Environmental Impact Statement failed to report the amount of radiation that would be associated with NIF operations. The facility would contribute to the radioactive and hazardous materials waste streams at the Lab. Already a Superfund site, the Lab would have us believe that since the amounts of tritium involved with NIF are relatively small, it poses no risk. This is deceptive and untrue. The Livermore area is already saturated with elevated levels of tritium. Lab analyses have found that Livermore Valley wines purchased off the shelf have four times the tritium content of other California wines. And, rain water samples taken by the Lab have consistently shown high levels of tritium around the Lab's one and a half square mile site and in the surrounding community.

Finally, and of key importance, NIF is wildly out of touch with the new realities of international nuclear security. On December 4, General Lee Butler, former commander of the U.S. Strategic Air Command, stated that: "A world free of the threat of nuclear weapons is necessarily a world devoid of nuclear weapons." Butler was joined in the call for policies that would eliminate all nuclear weapons by General Andrew Goodpaster, former commander of the U.S. European Command, General Charles Horner who directed the coalition air forces in the Gulf War, and over 60 other generals and admirals from around the world, including Russia's security chief, Alexander Lebed. The NIF would fly in the face of this wisdom by continuing the advancement of nuclear weapons. DOEand the worldcan ill-afford to ignore these expert voices. Stay tuned. . .

In the coming months, we will complete our investigation of NIF, and produce a report that details the false claims made by the DOE and the reality of threats NIF represents. To this end, we have contracted with Paul Carroll, who's academic background includes a Masters in national security studies, augmented by a two year stint as research analyst at the U.S. Congress Office of Technology Asessment and two years in DOE's Environmental Managment branch.

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