Future of Giant U.S. Laser in Doubt Absent Fusion Success

Prospects for continued federal funding of an enormous fusion array in California are murky amid criticism that the project has been an expensive failure, while proponents contend that gains have already helped ensure a reliable nuclear deterrent, the New York Times reported on Sunday.

The National Ignition Facility, located at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, has already consumed in excess of $5 billion of taxpayer dollars without accomplishing the never-before-seen feat of nuclear fusion ignition. The NIF project was given until the end of fiscal 2012 to show Congress progress, but the fiscal year ended on Sunday. With significant federal spending cutbacks approaching, advocates for continuing investment in the fusion initiative have a tough case to make to congressional appropriators, according to the Times

"We didn’t achieve the goal," National Nuclear Security Administration Deputy Administrator for Defense Programs Donald Cook told the newspaper. He declined to offer a time line for when controlled fusion would be achieved. Instead, he said, "we're going to settle into a serious investigation" into the reasons behind the lack of mission success.

The NIF project is mainly intended to help assess the reliability and safety of U.S. nuclear weapons through the creation of controlled blasts like those of a hydrogen bomb, though it is also seen as having uses in the creation of a limitless and cheap energy supply.

"The question is whether you continue to pour money into it or start over," said Stephen Bodner, who used to direct a competitor laser program at the Washington-based Naval Research Laboratory. "I think they're in real trouble and that continuing the funding at the current level makes no sense."

The project's current operating budget is approximately $290 million annually.

Still, a number of researchers believe the NIF project will continue to be funded due to its uses in maintaining a safe and effective nuclear stockpile, which has cross-aisle backing.

"Contrary to what some people say, this has been a spectacular success," insisted NIF project head Edward Moses. He acknowledged, however, that "science on schedule is a hard thing to do."

Meanwhile, it appears that a project to build a new state-of-the-art plutonium research installation at the Los Alamos National Laboratory will be mothballed, even though officials have already expended roughly $425 million in designs for the facility, the Associated Press reported on Sunday.

The Obama administration requested no new funding in its fiscal 2013 budget proposal for the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement nuclear facility. The federal budget year began on Monday.

Los Alamos site office official Steve Fong said roughly $80 million has been used from a budget of $200 million to wind down activities for the planned plutonium site in New Mexico, according to a Santa Fe New Mexican report.The remaining $120 million is to be redistributed to different Energy Department initiatives. 

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) in September submitted a plan that would use the $120 million to operate and enhance the Radiological Laboratory Utility Office Building, which beginning in November is to handle some of the responsibilities that would have been undertaken by the now-delayed CMRR facility.

The Energy Department's head of Finance and Accounting, Joanne Choi, wrote to Levin, informing him the department was still assessing alternatives for establishing the large plutonium research installation. Levin protested back that continuing to dither about the project would result in further significant project cost increases such that the "sheer size of the cost escalation ... could lead to an inability to construct."

The CMRR complex is presently projected to cost between $3.7 billion and $5.8 billion.

October 1, 2012
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Prospects for continued federal funding of an enormous fusion array in California are murky amid criticism that the project has been an expensive failure, while proponents contend that gains have already helped ensure a reliable nuclear deterrent, the New York Times reported on Sunday.

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