Fusion Program Confronted With Technical Problems

An expensive U.S. effort to achieve nuclear fusion ignition is contending with emerging technical challenges, as well as worries among activists that laboratory experiments could expose scientists to potentially lethal doses of radiation, the New York Times reported on Friday (see GSN, Oct. 7, 2010).

The $3.5 billion National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California has long been criticized for its enormous cost and unrealistic aims, according to the Times. If the ignition project's aims are achieved, it could help support federal efforts to maintain the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

Hurdles for the project to surmount include the unforeseen existence of tiny flecks that obstruct sensitive molecular filters intended to keep radioactive tritium particles from leaving the facility. The filters are so tiny that other atoms get trapped in them, requiring laboratory personnel to often enter the experiment room to replace the compromised filters. Officials have suggested allowing more tritium to gather in the filters before they are changed or doing away with the filters for certain trials and releasing the tritium molecules into the atmosphere.

Program representatives contend the threat of radiation harm to local residents and laboratory scientists who are not working in the ignition facility would be minor. However, under an extreme scenario contained in a preliminary environmental analysis, an average of one researcher taking part in the ignition project could die from radiation-induced cancer nearly every two decades.

The citizens group Tri-Valley CAREs has said the Energy Department's semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Agency should not consider raising the ceiling on the amount of radiation that is acceptable for the project to generate.

"There is no safe level of exposure," Tri-Valley CAREs Executive Director Marylia Kelley said.

Energy Department officials say that the tritium released would be substantially less than amounts that the Environmental Protection Agency allows.

The watchdog group, though, argues that a long track record of tritium emissions and incidents at the Livermore laboratory have resulted in an increase in radiation levels in local food, water, wine and honey.

"When tritium gets into the environment and it's on top of radiation being released from other parts of the laboratory, it potentially increases the dose and potentially increases the risk," Kelley said (John Upton, New York Times, June 24).

June 27, 2011
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An expensive U.S. effort to achieve nuclear fusion ignition is contending with emerging technical challenges, as well as worries among activists that laboratory experiments could expose scientists to potentially lethal doses of radiation, the New York Times reported on Friday (see GSN, Oct. 7, 2010).