On Saturday October 6th, the New York Times wrote an editorial that criticized the mission, effectiveness, and budget of the National Ignition Facility (NIF), an experimental laser at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, California. This editorial followed an article from the prior week noting scientific challenges in the NIF’s mission and airing division among scientists about the facility’s future.
The NIF consists of 192 lasers, each of which is among the largest and most energetic in the world. It was built between 1997 and 2009 for the purposes of conducting experiments with fusion energy.
The NIF works by focusing its 192 lasers on an eraser-sized target, consisting of supercooled Hydrogen. In one laser “shot” – a time of less than a billionth of a second – the target is heated to more than 100 million degrees (hotter than the surface of the sun) and compressed at a velocity of nearly 700,000 miles per hour. In these extreme conditions, fusion – where the hydrogen atoms are ‘fused’ together to form helium – can potentially be achieved. This is the power of the stars brought to earth.
Up to now, the NIF has failed to achieve ‘ignition‘ – the point at which the fusion reaction releases more energy than it takes to initiate it. The New York Times’ editorial noted that the NIF had failed to achieve ignition before the congressionally-appointed deadline of September 30, the end of the 2012 Fiscal Year.
The Times is wrong in its criticism of the NIF. Our country faces major challenges to our energy system over the next few decades: scientific advances can help smooth these challenges. But, if criticism is the first instinct of our media and politicians in the face of failure, then we will never overcome these challenges. The scientific process is, by its very nature, a process of trial-and-error. If scientists are punished for following the scientific process, we will not see the technological advances we need to successfully overcome 21st Century challenges like climate change, declining fossil fuels, and national competitiveness.
This is important, so let’s refute the Times’ arguments in turn.
First, the Times indicated that the NIF faced “technical challenges too great to be mastered on a tight time schedule.” We must be very careful about trying to fit important scientific breakthroughs on a politically-determined schedule. In the Times’ article, the Director of Livermore Laboratory, Penrose Albright, noted that the deadline was arbitrary; the goal coincided with the end of the fiscal year for budgetary reasons, not based on scientific parameters. He said “It’s like having a cure for cancer by a certain date…when you’re dealing with science and Mother Nature, all you really can do is agree on whether you’re on the right path.” Scientific advances do not happen simply because a President or Congress decrees it: they happen when a natural process is fully understood and when the engineering and design can implement that understanding.
The Times’ next major argument is that technical reviews this year have concluded that “the scientists in charge do not fully understand how the process is working.” Left unsaid by the Times is that the National Academy’s report on inertial fusion energy applauded the progress of science at the NIF and recommended the facility as a continued venue for future experiments. To simply argue that science is hard and that we don’t understand how it works would be like asking Enrico Fermi and Leo Szilard whether they knew how an atomic reactor would work in 1930, when their experiments were first beginning. It should be no surprise that scientists do not understand how matter acts under conditions of extreme heat and pressure: the only other times that these conditions exist on earth is during the testing of thermonuclear weapons.
Finally, the Times made a budgetary argument, saying that “we suspect the money would be better spent on renewable sources of energy” and that, even if experiments are successful, a demonstration plant “will cost billions and may ultimately show that fusion is not a practical source of power.” Each of these arguments is a mere assertion, unsupported by facts. I am not going to argue against funding for basic research into renewable sources of energy, but I would argue that the government’s role in basic research and development, like the NIF, is much clearer and more cost effective than support to commercialize a technology. “Picking winners” is more difficult than supporting research. Fusion is a technology that, once it is scientifically proven and its engineering perfected, could quickly be commercialized. The NIF’s leadership has already convened an advisory board of industry and utilities that is eager to move forward with a demonstration plant and commercial deployment, once fusion is proven and deemed feasible.
When we talk about budgets, we need to remember that the American economy spends over $1 trillion every year on its energy system. The built infrastructure supporting this system represents many trillions worth of investment by the private and public sector alike over decades. Even in a time of budget scrutiny, the cost-benefit analysis should come down in favor of continued research.
Ultimately, the important question is not whether the NIF failed to meet its goal by the end of the fiscal year. The more important question is whether or not the facility’s research is worth the investment.
The goal of achieving fusion ignition would be the culmination of more than six decades of scientific research and development. Fusion is often called the “holy grail” of energy. It promises to be a virtually limitless source of energy that is clean, safe, and sustainable. Ignition would lead the way to true “energy independence” – in every sense. We would no longer have to import energy from the far corners of the world. Our economy would no longer suffer at the whims of unpredictable price fluctuations. We would no longer have to fight about where to put our nuclear waste. Surely, this is a prize worth investing in?
Successfully commercializing fusion would initiate a new industry, under American leadership. If we do not seize this opportunity, we can be sure that other countries will try to move into the lead: already Russia, China, and France are building facilities that could outclass the NIF.
The prize here is so great that we must continue research into fusion of all sorts. While NIF has received the most attention, it is not the only entity conducting research on fusion. Sandia National Lab, Princeton, MIT, General Atomics, and others around the world are working on experiments to prove fusion is a viable source of future energy. These all deserve continued support from the government.
The NIF, in particular, is one of the crown jewels of American science, and we cannot allow its considerable achievements to be lost at the altar of false budgetary prudence.
Andrew Holland is a Senior Fellow for Energy and Climate at the American Security Project, a bi-partisan think-tank examining the big strategic choices facing the Unites States.