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National Ignition Facility Fails To Ignite Support In Congress 190

Posted by samzenpus
from the no-burning-desire dept.
Hugh Pickens writes "For more than 50 years, physicists have been eager to achieve controlled fusion, an elusive goal that could potentially offer a boundless and inexpensive source of energy. Now Bill Sweet writes in IEEE Spectrum that the National Ignition Facility (NIF), now five billion dollars over its original budget and years behind schedule, deserves to be recognized as perhaps the biggest and fattest white elephant of all time. With the total tab for NIF now running to an estimated $7 billion, the laboratory has been pulling out all the stops to claim success is just around the corner. 'We didn't achieve the goal,' said Donald L. Cook, an official at the National Nuclear Security Administration who oversees the laser project but rather than predicting when it might succeed, he added in an interview, 'we're going to settle into a serious investigation' of what caused the unforeseen snags. On one hand, the laser's defenders point out, hard science is by definition risky, and no serious progress is possible without occasional failures. On the other, federal science initiatives seldom disappoint on such a gargantuan scale, and the setback comes in an era of tough fiscal choices and skepticism about science among some lawmakers. 'If the main goal is to achieve a power source that could replace fossil fuels, we suspect the money would be better spent on renewable sources of energy that are likely to be cheaper and quicker to put into wide use,' editorializes the NY Times. 'Congress will need to look hard at whether these "stockpile stewardship" and long-term energy goals can be pursued on a smaller budget.'"
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National Ignition Facility Fails To Ignite Support In Congress

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday October 08, 2012 @08:03AM (#41583923)

    Then he'll never cut it, no matter how much waste it is.

    Either that, or find a way to spin it as a cut to Medicare.

    Just make sure he knows it's got nothing to do with PBS, that massive drain on the federal budget that never produces anything of value. Why I can't count the ways it hasn't helped me!

  • That is it (Score:5, Informative)

    by Bob the Super Hamste (1152367) on Monday October 08, 2012 @08:10AM (#41583999) Homepage

    With the total tab for NIF now running to an estimated $7 billion

    That is it, only $7 billion. To put that number into perspective that is about 2 days of deficit spending (not total spending for those 2 days just the deficit) for the US government.

  • by Electricity Likes Me (1098643) on Monday October 08, 2012 @08:10AM (#41584009)

    The NIF is part of the military essentially. While it has the side-benefit of allowing us to investigate inertial confined fusion, I thought the whole point of places like that was as a way to test nuclear weapons without actually setting them off?

  • Yes, in this case it isn't even some secret mission, but one of the reasons the program was set up. The NIF's goal is to improve our understanding of fusion. There are two stated applications for doing so: 1) improving designs for possible future fusion-power reactors; and 2) improving understanding of how matter behaves in a thermonuclear explosion.

    The news seems to mostly be about #1, but really #2 is a pretty key part of the reason it exists.

  • by vlm (69642) on Monday October 08, 2012 @08:47AM (#41584433)

    There's no turbine or continuous generation of power and the design of it pretty much seems to preclude such use.

    The walls heat up. That energy is going somewhere. Tell your local thermodynamics engineer, "You dump 10 MW of electricity into it, and magically the walls get 200 MW of heat at a million degrees or so, now do your Rankine/Carnot thing and generate 100 MW of electricity". Stand back and let the engineer work, and ta da !

  • Re:7 billion? (Score:5, Informative)

    by i kan reed (749298) on Monday October 08, 2012 @08:50AM (#41584455) Homepage Journal

    That's 7 billion over the lifetime of the project. The 700 Billion to the military is per year. In fact, I would honestly assert that those costs could be controlled by doing more in-house and less using contractors, but reversing the privatization of government jobs is really unpopular with congress for some reason.

  • Re:7 billion? (Score:4, Informative)

    by khallow (566160) on Monday October 08, 2012 @08:50AM (#41584459)
    Or just for science the International Space Station. Every four years or so, they burn the equivalent of a NIF.
  • Re:That is it (Score:5, Informative)

    by Elder Entropist (788485) on Monday October 08, 2012 @09:05AM (#41584633)

    The YEARLY amount spent on missile defense with really bad results is more than the total $7 billion here.

  • by daveschroeder (516195) * on Monday October 08, 2012 @10:16AM (#41585565)

    NIF has three missions:

    - National security (stockpile stewardship [llnl.gov]
    - Basic fusion science [llnl.gov]
    - Understanding the origins of the basic building blocks of the universe [llnl.gov]

    That's it.

    I hate to break it you you, but much of what we do in basic science research is dual-use. It can be used for military applications, or purely scientific applications. Doing stockpile stewardship without nuclear tests is not "getting around" nuclear test ban treaties. It's maintaining the integrity of our increasingly smaller nuclear stockpile as a credible deterrent.

    This overwhelming deterrent capability is part of the reason why the world has seen no major global conflict for seven decades [lanl.gov], and has had the longest period of peace without global conflict for over five centuries. Tens of millions of people died in WWI and WWII.

    We maintain a credible deterrent so it's clear that no one can ever strike us first [youtube.com] without the certainty of themselves also being destroyed -- and if our principles and ideals and those of our allies are something you care about, then that should be important to you.

    The world is changing, and some might say that the general "cyber" and information threats will more important than nuclear. China certainly seems to think so. [slashdot.org] Then again, China is also building out its nuclear weapons capabilities and stockpiles [washingtontimes.com] as the rest of the world, including the US, disarms. No worries, right? Delivery systems that can rain down nuclear warheads on targets anywhere in the world is just for "peaceful regional defense", right?

    A world where the US doesn't maintain an overwhelming deterrent to forces which espouse principles and ideals counter to those of freedom and liberal democracy is not a pretty place [cnn.com].

    (Note to people who think that the US is what's wrong with the world: you are sorely in need of historical perspective -- or, any perspective. The US is not perfect, but the US and West has done far more for the benefit of human life and humanity, on the whole, than any other nation, especially those with Communist, Socialist, or totalitarian systems of government. Wake up.)

  • Assumptions (Score:4, Informative)

    by sjbe (173966) on Monday October 08, 2012 @10:40AM (#41585923)

    Don't do many science experiments, do you?

    Since you "asked", my first real job was as a research assistant in a laser and plasma physics lab working on an experiment to study hypersonic shock waves for fusion research. I also have an engineering degree with a minor in applied physics. But thanks for assuming I'm ignorant without actually knowing anything about me.

    It's an experiment, not a finalized design.

    I'm well aware that it is an experiment. However it also is an experiment that almost certainly cannot be translated into a working power plant. It is designed to study weapons and if we happen to learn something useful for fusion power along the way that is terrific. Don't get me wrong, I support research endeavors like the NIF. I think there will be some terrific engineering and scientific spin offs. I just don't think the sort of research they are doing is likely to lead to fusion as a power source. I'd be delighted to be wrong but I doubt I am.

  • Re:That is it (Score:4, Informative)

    by shutdown -p now (807394) on Monday October 08, 2012 @12:53PM (#41588091) Journal

    The monthly amount spent on the war in Afghanistan - with zero net value to the United States or, really, anyone else - is $7 billion.

This process can check if this value is zero, and if it is, it does something child-like. -- Forbes Burkowski, CS 454, University of Washington

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