When Peer Review Fails
The Roots of the National Ignition Facility (NIF) Debacle
Top of Report
Addendum: Personal Views of the Author
Congress should put an end to the national labs' endless "fishing-for-ignition" expeditions aboard the ICF gravy boat, and demand a carefully peer-reviewed, experimental, and performance-based program to explore affordable driver technologies having a realistic potential to supply the large amounts of energy needed for ignition. If no such candidate ignition driver technology merits transition to full-scale engineering development within a reasonable period -- say five years -- DOE's ICF Program should be drastically curtailed, perhaps even terminated altogether, and the resources expended on the development of more plausible future energy technologies, such as solar hydrogen, fuel cells, and advanced photovoltaics. The United States can always return to a large ICF program in future decades, should overall progress in science and technology raise the prospect of intriguing new possibilities deserving of investigation.
The nation's technology base in high energy density and plasma physics can be maintained by unclassified university programs in such disciplines as astrophysics, deep earth geophysics, magnetic fusion, and propulsion sciences, and if necessary by small classified programs on relatively inexpensive high power (but modest energy) short-pulse lasers aimed at better characterizing the behavior of materials at nuclear weapon temperatures and pressures. A program of advanced computations can challenge a new generation of stockpile stewards with using computer codes to "postdict" the results of past test explosions of stockpiled and archived weapon designs.
There is little question that a huge high energy laser facility capable of driving a capsule to ignition and modest gain (e.g. a factor of 10-100), while having little or no bearing on the day-to-day safety and maintenance of the nuclear stockpile, would be of substantial benefit to any program seeking to attract and train a new generation of nuclear weapon scientists. There also seems to be agreement that there is little point to building such a large and expensive high-energy laser facility if it cannot reach ignition. The vast majority of non-ignition stockpile stewardship experiments can be carried out on cheaper, smaller facilities, and the ability to validate new 3D weapon codes for use in the weapons program depends, in part, on being able to perturb the parameters of a capsule design that has already demonstrated ignition and significant gain, in order to calculate and then verify the effect of the altered parameters on the output of the capsule.
It should be remembered that the most immediate product of any ICF program, whether here or abroad, is a technical cadre skilled in the science and technology of thermonuclear reactions and high temperatures and pressures, the very skill set needed in any program to design and construct thermonuclear weapons. The potential energy, environmental, and security payoff to the nation therefore should be very high relative to the unavoidable proliferation consequences of continuing the expensive quest for fusion ignition via inertial confinement. Absent a compelling and probable benefit to the nation, the chief contribution of DOE's "indirect drive" ICF program becomes the expansion of the global thermonuclear weapons technology base, an expansion that would otherwise not be likely to occur, given the exorbitant cost barrier to entry into the ICF ignition arena, and the influence over the direction of foreign programs typically exerted by U.S. technological leadership.
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