National Ignition Facility “Opens” Amid Continuing Controversy

May 31st, 2009 - by admin

Suzanne Bohan / Contra Costa Times & Tri-Valley CAREs – 2009-05-31 23:26:44

World’s Largest Fusion Facility Today Celebrates Long, Difficult Road to Official Opening
Suzanne Bohan / Contra Costa Times

(May 29/2009) — The challenging pursuit of fusion is nothing new to Lawrence Livermore Laboratory scientists. In the lab’s early days in the 1950s, weapons designers successfully developed the fearsome hydrogen — or fusion — bomb, many times more powerful than the atomic bombs dropped on Japan in World War II. In 1952, the lab joined a program called Project Sherwood that attempted to control the force of fusion to create a virtually unlimited source of electrical energy.

Today, the lab enters the newest chapter in its fusion quest with the official opening of the multipurpose National Ignition Facility, 15 contentious years after the project’s approval. The massive, dark building on the eastern edge of Livermore – not far from hillsides dotted with grazing cows – covers the footprint of three football stadiums. With 192 lasers, it ranks as the world’s largest laser fusion facility.

The opening ceremony of the facility, called NIF, is expected to draw 3,500 and scheduled speakers include Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, Sen. Dianne Feinstein and scores of other dignitaries.

“The dedication of NIF marks a new era,” said Ed Moses, principal associate director of NIF. “Through NIF we have a path to fusion ignition, the same force that powers our sun and the stars. NIF will play a key role in ensuring our national security, opening new frontiers in basic science and possibly providing the pathway to fusion energy.”

“I think it’s wonderful,” said Richard Muller, a UC Berkeley physics professor and member of a NIF advisory panel. “What other reaction could there be?”

On the northwest corner of national weapon lab, however, longtime opponents of the project intend to gather throughout the day. They’ll have “an ‘evidence table’ with documents demonstrating that NIF is related to nuclear weapons design,” said Marylia Kelley, executive director of Tri-Valley CAREs, a watchdog group that monitors the lab, which is the birthplace of numerous types of nuclear weapons over the decades.

The lab insists no new weapons design work is under way. Instead, Moses said a critical NIF mission entails testing the reliability of the nation’s 5,000 nuclear warheads, to ensure they serve as a credible deterrent against attack.

Much of the public acclaim for NIF, however, focuses on its potential to provide the research for ultimately creating fusion power plants. For six decades, scientists have chased the dream of fusion power, as theoretically it could provide an inexhaustible source of energy using seawater as fuel, freeing countries from reliance on imported energy sources or environmentally-damaging fuel extraction methods. Now fusion’s potential for generating power without releasing greenhouse gases burnishes its appeal.

As the name implies, fusion ignition is NIF’s mission. Ignition means that a fusion reaction – the fusing of two hydrogen atoms – generates enough energy to sustain fusion reactions in surrounding fuel. So far, fusion reactions have been fleeting – and driven by external sources.

The challenges sound straightforward, but are exceedingly complex: Heat the hydrogen fuel to millions of degrees, propagate the reaction, and confine the reacting material in a stable state. Plasma physics is a field devoted to this endeavor.

“There’s always been one problem with fusion, and that’s that Mother Nature has not been totally cooperative,” said Moses. “That’s why it’s taken a protracted effort to sort it out. That’s why we had to build the NIF to finally do it.”

The project cost $3.5 billion, Moses said. Kelley and others dispute that figure, however, saying that figure accounts for the building, not other costs. She puts the price at more than $5 billion. It’s also opening six years behind schedule, and quadruple its original projected cost. The facility now employs 1,000.

NIF follows two other “inertial confinement fusion programs” at the Livermore lab, starting with the Shiva project in 1977 and followed by the NOVA facility in 1984. The latter was marred by a calculation error that rendered it technically impossible to achieve ignition, and its scope was scaled back. NIF replaces NOVA, and it builds on the knowledge gained from previous projects.

But doubters say NIF takes too big a technical leap from its predecessor, and that lab officials pushed it through despite a lack of rigorous peer review and after stacking scientific assessment panels in its favor.

For example, a successful 1997 lawsuit by the Natural Resources Defense Council, Tri-Valley CAREs and another plaintiff against the Department of Energy, which funds the lab, banned the agency from relying upon or disseminating data from a National Academies of Science committee studying NIF’s likelihood of achieving ignition. A U.S. District Court issued the ruling on the grounds that the agency violated a federal law requiring balanced representation in committees that federal agencies rely upon for advice, and open access to the committees’ meetings and documents.

And a 2005 review by an independent scientific advisory group called JASON concluded that ignition at NIF in 2010 was “unlikely,” although the group added advice for providing “a reasonable road map for progress toward ignition after the initial attempts.” Quoting that report’s findings, former Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., vented his frustrations with the NIF project during a 2006 Senate committee hearing with the Energy Department agency that runs the Livermore Lab.

“I stand by watching and waiting and hoping that it works,” Domenici said at the hearing. “It is one of the biggest gambles I’ve ever voted for.”

“JASON said it was unlikely, they didn’t say it was impossible,” responded Thomas D’Agostino, administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration. “We think the first credible ignition experiment will be done in 2010,” he said Thursday.

But Stephen Bodner, head of the laser fusion program at the Naval Research Laboratory from 1975 to 1999, counts himself among the doubters. Bodner also worked at the Livermore Lab from 1964 to 1974 in its fusion programs. “Everything would have to work according to optimistic scaling laws, and that seems unlikely,” he said.

What galls Kelley, with Tri-Valley CAREs, is the new focus on fusion energy as a critical aim of NIF, when nuclear weapons work was the reason Congress approved the project.

“I’ve seen NIF marketed three different ways through three different administrations,” Kelley said. “But the laser itself hasn’t changed.”

“Suddenly with Obama and global warming, it’s somehow going to solve the energy crisis,” she said.

D’Agostino said that NIF won’t be designed to produce new nuclear weapons, that it’s a question of “semantics” in that debate. Kelley said the facility will be used to add upgrades to the existing weapons – a form of new weapons work, in her view. But D’Agostino said that’s a critical step for ensuring the reliability of the warheads.

The simulated nuclear warheads testing program that NIF will conduct provides a critical means of reducing the number of nuclear weapons, said Muller, with UC Berkeley. U.S. presidents face tremendous pressure to resume nuclear testing, he said. The nation hadn’t conducted an underground nuclear test since 1992.

“This is a way of reducing them in reality by assuring that the few nuclear weapons we have left will be reliable, and by eliminating the need for (underground) testing,” he said.

But Bodner, who says that the lasers have never met their original design specifications, wonders whether NIF can provide reliable simulated weapons testing.

“The bigger question is, if the lab cannot face up to NIF’s failure to meet necessary specifications, then how can they be entrusted to maintain our enduring nuclear weapons stockpile?” Bodner asked.

D’Agostino, though, said the enthusiasm over NIF’s opening among scientists is palpable. “It’s hard to contain the excitement among the scientists. They never thought they’d get to this day.”

Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.

National Ignition Facility Ceremony Masks Serious Technical, Scientific, Environmental and Nuclear Weapons Policy Questions
>Tri-Valley CAREs (Communities Against a Radioactive Environment)

What: NIF Truth Telling Exhibit with 7 ft. x 4 ft. NIF poster and “evidence table” with government and other documents on NIF’s weapons applications, plutonium use, technical problems and other key facts not being told at the official NIF ceremony.
When: 9 AM – 2 PM, Friday, May 29, 2009
Where: Lawrence Livermore National Lab, corner of Vasco Rd. & Patterson Pass Rd.

LLIVERMORE, California (May 28, 2009) — The National Ignition Facility mega-laser is $4 billion over its original budget, construction is 9 years behind schedule, its “firm” date for thermonuclear ignition is once again fading into a more distant horizon, its actual mission to advance nuclear weapons design is being downplayed, and the controversial decision to use weapons-grade plutonium in NIF is being ignored — as are the myriad still-unresolved technical problems that make NIF “ignition” dubious at best. Moreover, according its fiscal year 2010 budget request, the claim of NIF “completion” may be in the eye of the beholder.

NIF Watchdogs Detail Concerns
Marylia Kelley said today: “Tri-Valley CAREs has been tracking the National Ignition Facility since it was proposed in 1992. NIF was conceived and budgeted as a nuclear weapons design project, and it remains so today.

In 2005, the Dept. of Energy expanded NIF’s weapons mission with a decision to add plutonium and other fissile materials into NIF experiments. The decision ran counter to DOE’s pledge not to use plutonium in NIF. The DOE has also decided to produce both the fusion and plutonium targets in Livermore, reneging on a separate promise to the community that the deuterium-tritium (radioactive hydrogen) fuel would be loaded at a more remote location due to the emissions.

The history of NIF is a history of broken promises and deception. This remains true today regarding NIF’s purpose, radioactive wastes and emissions ” and its scientific readiness. Tri-Valley CAREs undertook a detailed analysis of NIF’s technical problems in 2001 ” many of them remain unresolved today.” (See and our evidence table on Friday.)

Dr. Stephen Bodner noted: “Construction projects are generally measured by three variables: time, cost, and ultimate performance. The NIF has failed on all three. The performance failure is easily documented from Livermore’s own publications. The question now is, do they get away with it?”

According to Christopher Paine: “This celebration is a travesty and a farce, and I’m sorry to see the Secretary of Energy lend his prestige to this colossal misallocation of DOE’s taxpayer [monies]. In reality, the NIF Project remains where it has always been — a speculative gamble when it comes to the achievement of its primary mission — fusion ignition”at least seven years behind schedule, obscenely expensive for what it can actually deliver for either energy research or weapons stockpile reliability, and vastly over-budget when numerous hidden and ‘off-loaded’ ignition program costs are considered. The whole project is an object lesson in how not to do either stockpile stewardship or big science.”

Luciana Messina stated: [The fiscal Year 2010 budget request] “sounds like the activity of developing the software for the laser and target diagnostic systems has only just begun. I am most concerned about this [following] statement taken in conjunction with the increase in funding to $72 Million: ‘This subprogram also supports the installation qualification of the cryogenic target system, the assembly and testing of the opposed port shroud remover, the first set of continuous phase plates, user optics, and the installation qualification of both the tritium handling system and personnel and environmental…’

“If by 2010, ‘complete fabrication of cryogenics and diagnostics equipment to support ignition experiments on the NIF’ (p. 219) is to be achieved, the installation qualification (testing) of the target system and the tritium handling system, including hardware and software, should have been completed by now.”

“My conclusion is: With one year remaining, there is only time left to resolve the issues generated by the formal reviews of the qualification (acceptance) testing. The budget increase would indicate a large number of review findings remain to be resolved and that a significant amount of software design and implementation (and its cost) will be hidden under software “maintenance”.

Major issues not previously addressed in years of software requirements and design will be characterized as minor software implementation flaws. Software and its costs are the largest component of safety-critical, real time systems on the NIF, the public has seen neither yet.”

Les Miklosy said about NIF control software: “[The 2010 budget request] mentions several components of the integrated computer control system (ICCS) that I worked on. [It] refers to the database that defines the configuration of the NIF system during an experiment. The database was not in good shape in 2003 when Luciana worked with it, and it appears to be incomplete today as well. The diagnostics component and the experimental campaign management software sound like two more elements that were not addressed until very late in this project.

“I suspect they did not specify these components early on and now they will spend millions more to integrate these three components into the existing ICCS… The purpose of NIF continually changes to justify it’s further funding despite not meeting any criteria for success.”

• Marylia Kelley, Tri-Valley CAREs, Livermore, (925) 443-7148
• Dr. Stephen Bodner, Naval Research Lab, rtd, email only,
• Christopher Paine, Natural Resources Defense Council, (202) 289-6868
• Luciana Messina, NIF whistleblower, formerly at LLNL, (650) 575-6390
• Les Miklosy, NIF whistleblower, formerly at LLNL, email only,