Stephen I Schwartz: Can Livermore lab deliver on big promises?

Futuristic tech is way behind and way over budget

May 31, 2013 

If scientists and officials at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory seem a little starstruck these days, there's a good reason: The lab's massive National Ignition Facility, or NIF, has something of a starring role in "Star Trek Into Darkness," which opened nationwide last week.

"For many years, we've been waiting for 'Star Trek' to realize that they should be here," NIF principal associate director Ed Moses told Live Science. "This is a very futuristic facility ... and I think we've all been influenced by 'Star Trek's' vision of the future."

The film's director, J.J. Abrams, and its stars have been enthusiastic about the opportunity to film at the classified facility.

"We were there just trying to shoot a movie, but all around us, these innovative scientists are working on technologies that will likely help the whole world," said Abrams. "The idea that one day the research at NIF could create clean, limitless energy is so exciting. ... These people are doing research that could alter the destiny of the planet the way the wheel or the light bulb did."

Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays a villain and is something of a science nerd, told a reporter that NIF "is trying to create hydrogen fusion by using lasers fired at extraordinary speeds through various lenses. If they can hit this target of hydrogen — which is half the breadth of a human hair in this huge cell — they will create this alternate energy supply which could power San Francisco for a year with one burst."

But all the glowing praise is misleading the public about NIF's true purpose while masking a troubling reality, one that lab officials — and their federal overseers at the Department of Energy — would clearly prefer not to discuss: NIF is not designed to produce "clean, limitless energy," it is years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget. It has failed to ignite the fusion reaction for which it was built, and there is a growing acceptance that it probably will never be able to generate a fusion reaction.

Conceived in the early 1990s, NIF was supposed to simulate the temperatures and densities at the very earliest stages of the ignition of a thermonuclear bomb. This, in turn, would verify and improve complex computer simulations, facilitate a better understanding of how modified or aging weapons materials would behave, and allow the United States to test the reliability of nuclear weapons without actually blowing them up. The program began with an estimated budget of $1.1 billion (with another $1 billion for research) and a projected completion date in 2002. A variety of construction and engineering challenges delayed completion and rapidly drove up costs (facts the NIF withheld from Congress for years). A DOE review in 2000 increased the budget estimate to $3.3 billion and pushed back completion to 2006. A 2000 GAO assessment pegged the cost at $3.9 billion. In a report the following year, the GAO estimated the cost at $4.2 billion.

While NIF has conducted more than 1,000 laser "shots" and set multiple records for laser power — including a 500-terawatt shot on July 5, 2012 — the latest goal of achieving ignition by October 1, 2012 came and went. The laser's energy is only generating pressures about half of what is required for ignition. Moses told the San Francisco Chronicle that he cannot predict when — or if — ignition will ever be achieved.

Though NIF's weapons-related role may be fading, thanks to growing congressional frustration, a failure to achieve its primary objective, and the budgetary effects of sequestration, "Star Trek" has given some NIF personnel a brief bit of glory — albeit in a way that foreshadows a less than rosy future. As Simon Pegg, who plays Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott explained to, "All of those guys with red shirts in the warp core are all guys from NIF who just wanted to be in 'Star Trek.' Bruno Van Wonterghem, the project leader there, who is the guy who will discover fusion and will go down as the next Edison" is in the background.

If Moses, Van Wonterghem, and their colleagues are true Trekkies, the irony won't be lost on them. In "Star Trek," those wearing red shirts are the first to die.

On the other hand, the film's probable box office success makes it likely there will be future installments. Which means NIF, whose slogan is "Bringing star power to Earth," could live on as possibly the world's most expensive movie set — and its employees could continue to work as extras, trading one kind of star power for another.

Schwartz is editor of the Nonproliferation Review at the Monterey Institute of International Studies.

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