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Section 1

Introduction to Inertial Confinement Fusion

Inertial Confinement Fusion (ICF) has been defined as "an approach to fusion that relies on the inertia of the fuel mass to provide confinement."[1] In practice, ICF is based on the concept of igniting a thermonuclear reaction by irradiating and imploding a small capsule (on the order of one millimeter in diameter) containing hydrogen isotopes -- typically equal mixtures of deuterium and tritium. ICF originated in the thermonuclear weapons program of the United States in the late 1950s as part of a classified research effort to understand if nuclear weapons could be designed without using fissile material. The invention of the laser in 1960 spurred ICF work, which then evolved over the next 40 years at the U.S. nuclear weapons laboratories through a series of ever-larger laser facilities in an effort to generate significant amounts of energy through ICF. U.S. declassification of basic concepts of ICF occurred in 1972, but wholesale release of information did not occur until the 1990s.

To date, no laser facility has ever produced significant amounts of energy through ICF. Specifically, there has been no laser experiment in which the thermonuclear fuel ignited and burned in a self-sustained way over the short time before the capsule blew apart. It is reported that ICF thermonuclear ignition and self-sustained burn was observed for some types of capsules irradiated by the x-rays produced by nuclear explosions at the Nevada Test Site in a project code-named Halite/Centurion. These experiments were conducted in the 1980s and their details remain secret.

Since the U.S. nuclear testing moratorium began in 1992, ICF and nuclear weapons research have become -- as a matter of government policy -- even more strongly coupled. The resulting program, known as the Science-Based Stockpile Stewardship, has provided the rationale for the latest and most massive laser ICF research facility, called the National Ignition Facility, or NIF. Physical construction of NIF at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory began in June 1997. In August of 1999, Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson confirmed that the NIF project had suffered significant cost overruns and schedule delays. The total cost of NIF currently consists of $1.2 billion in "project" costs and another $1.1 to $1.3 billion in ICF "program" costs. Including annual operating costs of between $100 and $200 million over 30 years, NRDC estimates the total cost of the NIF to be between $5.3 and $8.5 billion before any cost overruns are added. As of January 2000, about $800 million of the NIF project funds has been spent.

The Natural Resources Defense Council has opposed, including through litigation, the NIF project since its inception. Our objections may be summarized as follows:

  1. The computational and experimental analyses predicting that thermonuclear ignition will occur on the NIF are insufficient to support the project and have not been adequately peer reviewed;

  2. Experiments planned for the NIF other than ignition are not sufficiently relevant to maintaining the safety and reliability of the existing nuclear stockpile to justify a project of this cost;

  3. The research and development necessary for the engineering design and construction of the NIF was not adequately and thoroughly performed prior to start of construction, potentially creating additional costs to taxpayers.

In addition to these specific objections, which indicate that achievement of ignition at the NIF is now only a remote possibility, NRDC also opposes numerous elements of the Science-Based Stockpile Stewardship Program because they represent a sizable re-investment in nuclear weapons research capabilities. This reinvestment runs counter to the goal of deep reductions in nuclear arms by the United States and Russia and counter to the goal of strengthening the non-proliferation regime, including the achievement of a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. The NIF has been represented by the Department of Energy as the flagship of the Stockpile Stewardship Program.

In November of 1999, Energy Secretary Richardson requested that the Secretary of Energy's Advisory Board, or SEAB, duly constituted under the Federal Advisory Committee Act, offer him advice on the best course of action in light of the current difficulties with construction of the NIF. Earlier, Congress had directed the secretary to certify by June 1, 2000, a new cost and schedule baseline for the NIF, or, "If the secretary is unable to provide such a certification, the Department [of Energy] should prepare an estimate of the costs necessary to terminate the project."

Thus through the first half of this year the NIF project hangs in the balance. More broadly, the rejection of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty by the U.S. Senate on October 13, 1999, and the upcoming presidential elections call into question the future of the current Stockpile Stewardship Program. NRDC will continue to study and report on the evolving situation with the NIF. On this web page we will make available, in addition to our material and relevant links, a collection of documentation on the NIF and on the Stockpile Stewardship Program. Our goal is to assemble primary source materials on the U.S. nuclear weapons program and make these documents widely accessible during a time of review and change.

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1. John D. Lindl, Inertial Confinement Fusion: The Quest for Ignition and Energy Gain Using Indirect Drive, Springer-Verlag New York, 1998, pg. 1.

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