Legislative analysts have voiced significant doubts over the prospects of an effort to perform nuclear fusion "ignition" using a giant laser array in California, the San Francisco Chronicle reported on Tuesday.
In preliminary recommendations to lawmakers, the National Nuclear Security Administration has called for no fewer than 36 more months of studies at the National Ignition Facility to explore two new avenues for potentially eliminating complicated obstacles to the goal. Experts on Capitol Hill are expected to start mulling over plans for the fusion site at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory after NNSA officials issue their formal version of the document around the beginning of next week.
The United States has used at least $5 billion to date on constructing and operating the fusion complex, and present testing is absorbing $450 million or more on an annual basis. The site failed to achieve its congressionally imposed aim of achieving "ignition" by late 2012, and one informed legislative insider said the milestone remains "very, very far away."
"They're asking us to give them a blank check ... and then we'd see where we are," the source said. "That worries me. They're not even close."
The specialist said the government has spent too much to end operations at the facility. "It's too early now to estimate its eventual success, but we'll all be looking at fiscal 2014 to talk about budget," according to the insider.
The project -- which to date has completed 35 tests and over 1,000 laser firings -- is intended to support efforts to guarantee the U.S. atomic arsenal's dependability by refining scientific knowledge of the fusion process and verifying associated electronic programming. Carrying out ignition, though, would require the system to increase its power and temperature output by between three- to 10-fold, the semiautonomous Energy Department office stated in its preliminary assessment.
The source of the underlying roadblocks is uncertain. A panel of laser experts suggested no time line for reaching ignition, but it commended the system's "robust operation," asserted the equipment had "met and exceeded its design goals" and said site personnel were moving to a bolster the apparatus in a manner that could make the fusion goal possible to attain.
Firm forecasts are not possible in areas of intricate research, NIF project head Edward Moses said.