Wasn’t it in the Pleistocene that the Dept. of Energy’s nuclear weapons team decided to build the National Ignition Facility mega-laser at the Lawrence Livermore National Lab? Actually, early in the Clinton administration (1993). It was supposed to start firing its 196 enormous lasers at tiny pellets of hydrogen bomb fuel in 2002. In the San Francisco Chronicle today David Perlman reports that it’s about half built now. Operations seem plausible in another three years or so. Some say the final cost could be well over $5 billion, making it “by far the most expensive single, high-tech project the US has ever undertaken,” Perlman writes. Presumably this means the costliest specific pile of hardware or machine (Apollo Projects, etc., are another kettle of fish).
The story covers the basics of its operation and, most important, it contrasts views of skeptics who think it foolish and doomed to fail with those of a few well-qualified outside authorities who think it has at least a shot at success. Technically, that would mean generating tiny fusion blasts that release more energy than the laser banks pump into their targets. That would in turn mean two things: enough emitted radiation to analyze the reliability of aging nuke components without lighting them off, and progress toward a potential civil payoff in the form of inertial confinement fusion energy. The latter quest, the Tracker has observed over the years, is what gets the physicists’ motors running for such projects. Stockpile stewardship of nuclear weapons has to be among the dreariest of jobs to which a new PhD could obligate a lifetime of work. Your correspondent is a devoted fan of giant, phenomenal gizmos and wishes this one well. But man, it’s taking a long time.
Grist for the Mill: LLNL Press Release ;
Pic – one of the two beam line bays, hi res ;