Reading Room

National Ignition Facility: Claims vs Reality

Desperate to maintain its nuclear weapons programs, Livermore Lab's managers have been lobbying hard for a giant laser project, called the National Ignition Facility, or NIF. The admitted primary purpose of NIF is not the science it will produce, but the money it may provide to LLNL's falling nuclear weapons budget.

What is NIF? Basically, NIF is like LLNL's NOVA laser, only bigger and more expensive. As in NOVA, large glass lasers are to be focused and directed into a tiny gold cylinder through the open ends. The cylinder then fills with intense x-radiation, imploding a tiny spherical pellet of deuterium and radioactive tritium (D-T) which is suspended inside the cylinder. Under certain circumstances, some portion of the D-T fuel will then undergo nuclear fusion, releasing energy in the form of intense radiation, much like a tiny hydrogen bomb. This is a type of inertially-confined fusion (ICF) called "indirect drive," because the lasers aren't focussed directly on the pellet. The NIF will cost about $1.2 billion dollars in construction costs alone.

NIF is being sold in many ways. While the Lab's publications and Congressional testimony repeatedly emphasize NIF's nuclear weapons mission, NIF is being represented to the California Congressional delegation as an alternative energy project. Meanwhile the City of Livermore, fearing economic decline at LLNL, has quickly embraced the project, perhaps with insufficient consideration of the long-term economic or environmental consequences to the City.

All versions of the spiel being offered by the Lab to drum up support for NIF contain as much hype as fact. Here are some of the arguments being advanced in favor of NIF, deflated and brought down to earth:

Claim: NIF is not primarily a weapons project.

Reality: NIF is, first and foremost, a weapons project. It has military applications in the design of the fusion component of nuclear weapons and in simulations of the effects of nuclear blast on military hardware. It is these capabilities that are the driving force behind the Lab's desire for NIF. According the the LLNL Institutional Plan 1994-1999 "Other ICF facilities will have to be used until NIF is operational, but their capabilities will be largely exhausted by the end of the decade in terms of making new scientific headway on the important problems facing the weapon-design and weapon-effects programs."

Dr. Vic Reis, DOE Assistant Secretary for Defense Programs and a strong NIF advocate, described it this way to Congress: "The whole idea of lasers is for understanding the physics of (nuclear weapons) secondaries, but also more particularly, for maintaining that cadre of scientists who both understand the fusion process and all the things that go along with that..."

Claim: NIF is necessary to provide stewardship for our nuclear weapons.

Reality: "The stewards," Dr. Reis went on to say in his Congressional testimony, are "really more important than the equipment." From this and other testimony, it is clear that NIF is not really to take care of the weapons but rather of the weaponeers. Which is to say, NIF is primarily a welfare program for a select cadre of nuclear weapons scientists. But the nation does not need to maintain the heavily-redundant and bloated nuclear weapons staffing levels of Livermore and Los Alamos. Nuclear weapons can be passively maintained with a much smaller work force, and without NIF or other dangerous new "toys." Instead, the Lab should aggressively seek new civilian missions to ensure employment for a broad spectrum of its workers.

Claim: NIF cannot hurt U.S. non-proliferation objectives.

Reality: The impact of NIFeither short or long-termon nonproliferation objectives may well be extremely negative. Note that the purpose of NIFmaintaining U.S. nuclear weapons design capability runs directly counter to the purpose of a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. And how can it look to the signers of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty for the U.S. to be making a multi-billion dollar investment in a nuclear weapons design facility, and this after the end of the Cold War? Aren't our existing weapons terrible enough? It is not only the particular technology of NIF that is of proliferation concern; it is the scale of the investment that is itself a problem. How would a proposed multi-billion dollar weapons design facility appear to us if it were in, say, North Korea or Iraq?

Claim: NIF is environmentally benign.

Reality: NIF will use a fuel of half deuterium and half tritium. Tritium is intensely radioactive; just one drop of pure T2O will contaminate over 2 billion gallons of water to the EPA drinking water standard; one breath of pure T2O-saturated air is fatal, according to a DOE document. Livermore's rainfall is already heavily pollutedtritium has been measured at seven times the allowable limit for drinking water. NIF will almost certainly increase LLNL's tritium handling and tritium releases. Other environmental concerns also exist.

Claim: NIF is an important alternative energy project.

Reality: Fusion energy is highly speculative as an energy source, for a wide variety of reasons that cannot be easily removed by technical breakthroughs: very high cost; vulnerability to breakdown, sabotage, and terrorism; nuclear waste production, the intrinsic large scale, and the serious possibility that no net energy might actually be produced without using a hybrid approach involving nuclear fission. Even within the family of fusion energy technologies, ICF appears to be by far less practical than magnetically-confined fusion. Even within ICF, it is particle beams, rather than lasers, that would be used for rapidly-repeating operation. NIF is highly unlikely to lead to a practical energy source, let alone one that could be competitive with renewable energy technologies.

Claim: NIF will use laser beams to "ignite" a pellet of fusion fuel, mimicking the sun.

Reality: Scientists with knowledge of the field say NIF may, despite its name, not achieve ignition at all. The design power of NIF is reported to be right atnot overthe predicted threshold for ignition, with no margin for surety. More than a billion dollars to build, and it may be a scientific fizzle.

Claim: NIF will be a significant economic development aid to the region.

Reality: NIF will be a significant construction project, but will generate only about 230 long-term jobs at the Lab. Almost any civilian project of comparable size will yield many more long-term jobs than NIF.

Claim: NIF is the key to Lawrence Livermore's future.

Reality: NIF would provide a reason to keep nuclear weapons design teams at Livermore. It will stymie any significant conversion effort, and thus lock LLNL into a limited, nuclear weapons future.

Claim: NIF will be an important new facility for basic science.

Reality: NIF will provide interesting data to a one field of science at great expense. It is a highly capital-intensive project, with a great deal of mechanical, managerial, and design overhead. If the same amount of money were invested in many smaller projects, at the Lab and at universities, more scientists could do more research in more fields.

LLNL and the DOE should abandon NIF and turn their energies to genuine peacetime pursuits: realistic and environmentally responsible energy sciences, advanced transportation technologies, environmental modelling, cleanup, and cleanup technology development; new materials; and joint research with industry. Such a path would have much greater benefitsboth scientific and economicto the Lab, to California, and to the nation .

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