Reading Room

The National Ignition Facility's Missed Milestone; or, What Do You Call a "Credible Ignition" Experiment That is Neither Credible Nor Ignition?

For starters, the NIF has already cost taxpayers around $7 billion (instead of the $1 billion estimate originally given to Congress). And, the Dept. of Energy (DOE) and Livermore Lab management promised NIF would achieve nuclear ignition (a self sustaining fusion reaction) and gain (more energy out than was put in) by 2003.

That milestone was then stretched to fiscal year 2010, which ended on Sept. 30th. As the deadline approached, DOE and the Lab began walking that commitment back to what it began calling a "credible ignition experiment." The DOE National Nuclear Security Administration head Tom D'Agostino defined it as such in a 2010 congressional hearing: "And, credible means we have no reason to believe it is not going to work."

Baloney. The Lab knew. And, Tom knew (or did not want to know). So, what did we actually get for our money?

On October 6, 2010, the NNSA put out a NIF press release. The energy of the shot (experiment) was at 1 megajoule, not the 1.8 megajoules that NIF was designed to deliver. The "target" capsule was plastic, known not to ablate well and therefore not likely ignition capable in any event.

Moreover, the press release says that the capsule was filled with a mix of "tritium, hydrogen, and deuterium." Since tritium is radioactive hydrogen, and deuterium is "heavy" hydrogen extracted from sea water, one can deduce that regular hydrogen was also present in the mix, which creates a third reason why "ignition" would not be a "credible" scientific outcome of the experiment.

The NNSA press release tries to spin the situation by touting the experiment's "integration" of the complex NIF system. Integration? That's it? No analogy is perfect, but here is one to consider. If the Wright Brothers had collected billions in government funding and then announced (7 years late) that they had run an integrated experiment of the engine (at half speed) but no motion, let alone lift-off (and no date certain for lift-off), would we be all that excited? Would we want to give them billions more?

Further, NIF is a nuclear weapons tool, not an airplane. Its central purpose is to train the next generation of nuclear bomb designers in their deadly pursuits. Should we continue to shower NIF with a half-billion or so of our tax dollars each and every year? We at Tri-Valley CAREs think not.

Click here for the NNSA October 5th press release

Click here for Tri-Valley CAREs' analysis of the NNSA FY 2011 Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan, including NIF