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National Ignition Facility Fails To Ignite Support In Congress 190

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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  • 7 billion? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday October 08, 2012 @09:07AM (#41583975)

    That's it? This is what they claim is the biggest white elephant in our budget?

    It isn't the 700 billion spent on Defense, or the 400 billion we spend on medicare, it's the god damn 7 billion spent on trying to obtain controlled fusion. Don't misunderstand me, it sounds like this project is wasting a ton of money, and something should be done about it. But claiming it is the single biggest flop in our budget, even as hyperbole, is laughable at best, and ill informed at worst.

  • by hyades1 ( 1149581 ) <> on Monday October 08, 2012 @09:10AM (#41583993)

    There needs to be a very detailed account of what these people have been doing with public funds. Renewable energy in the form of wind, solar, tidal and geothermal generation cannot replace fossil fuels fast enough to keep Global Warming within reasonable limits, but all show promise.

    We've already wasted too much time, and now we need some kind of generation technology to bridge the gap. Imagine what that money could have done helping develop a small, safe, easy-to-build thorium reactor, or overcoming the issues delaying wholesale change to LED lighting.

  • by serviscope_minor ( 664417 ) on Monday October 08, 2012 @09:12AM (#41584017) Journal

    Or, you know, spend 1T less on whacking tin-pot dicatooar, put $50B into the NIF to make it actually work, another $50B at ITER as a backup and enjoy the $900B savings...

    1 billion on solar power satellites,

    Also, seriously, since one speculative tech hit a snag and didn't work, your solution is to invest in another that is evel less likely to work eith current tech at a level which will ensure that it will never get aronud to be working.

    £1b is orders of magnitude too low to get anywhere with solar power satellites. $100b _might_ cut it.

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

    by Joce640k ( 829181 ) on Monday October 08, 2012 @09:13AM (#41584041) Homepage

    Well... the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology thinks the Big Bang is lie from hell [] so why is this surprising?

  • Money well spent (Score:5, Insightful)

    by zill ( 1690130 ) on Monday October 08, 2012 @09:14AM (#41584057)
    The experiment was a success. The outcome a failure.

    There are two proposed approaches for fusion power generation: tokamak and ICF. ITER tests the tokamak approach and the National Ignition Facility tests the ICF approach. Thanks to the NIF we now know exactly what ICF is and isn't capable of. I'd call that an excellent return on investment.
  • by fearofcarpet ( 654438 ) on Monday October 08, 2012 @09:26AM (#41584201)

    The scientists at NIF have it all wrong; if they want to save their hides they need to get someone from the military to claim they need fusion for... I don't know, fighting terrorists or whatever. Just look at the rail gun--what a spectacular failure. Sure, we can make heavy things go fast, but they still haven't solved basic problems like how keep plasma from electrical arcing from melting the rails. Or the non-lethal microwave device that doesn't work in a light rain. Hypersonic missiles? Or even the myriad "totally necessary" fighter jets with backup engines being developed, just in case. What about space-based missile defense? Maybe NIF could claim that they could retrain their lasers on ICBMs? Clearly, if the military is into something things like price and feasibility are not a problem.

    In all seriousness, how the f*ck can anyone take Congress seriously when it comes to spending? Here we have $7 billion spent trying to discover limitless sources of energy, but ohhhh, they're over budget and that sounds like a big number! The Big Dig (in Boston) was federally subsidized and cost around $8 billion and it was made so poorly (due to corruption and a lack of oversight) that some poor woman was crushed when a ceiling tile fell on her car. And what about the trillion dollar tax cuts enacted in the first term of W? Or the other trillion (give or take) spent on invading Iraq for no particular reason? I don't buy this "we have to start somewhere" nonsense of budget cuts when nothing defense-related is even questioned and just letting the Bush tax cuts expire as they were supposedly originally intended is a non-starter, not to mention the insanity of the blanket 15% capital gains rate (note: you don't tax money, it's fungible, you tax the actions of people and legal entities).

    If anything, Congress should be embarrassed by how little they appropriate to science and how many of its members are on the record as refusing to accept Darwinian evolution or anthropogenic global warming (which probably explains their willingness to cut funding for NIF.)

  • Re:7 billion? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday October 08, 2012 @09:46AM (#41584419)

    A white elephant isn't just expensive, its cost is more than its worth. High amounts of dollars spent are a necessary condition, but not sufficient; you also need a lack of results or value. You may disagree, but many people think we're getting essential value from the money we spend on defense and Medicare. So what you have a disagreement about values, which doesn't make the opposing view "laughable at best, and ill informed at worst."

  • Perspective (Score:4, Insightful)

    by zugmeister ( 1050414 ) on Monday October 08, 2012 @10:16AM (#41584769)
    Meanwhile, we're throwing away $ 40 billion every month "until the economy improves" []. For me, that puts many things in perspective.
    If we're going to flush money down the toilet, this seems like a much more potentially constructive way to do it.
  • by ericloewe ( 2129490 ) on Monday October 08, 2012 @11:07AM (#41585453)

    Their goal isn't to generate power. Their goal is to prove that it's possible to generate power.

  • by tibit ( 1762298 ) on Monday October 08, 2012 @11:24AM (#41585685)

    Just because you call some nonexisting tech, wishfully, "small, safe, easy-to-build", doesn't make it so. Unless it's demonstrated to be having those properties, I file it under pink unicorns :(

  • by DerekLyons ( 302214 ) <> on Monday October 08, 2012 @01:41PM (#41587891) Homepage

    Everyone is missing the point here... despite massive greenwashing, the NIF really has nothing to do with fusion power. It's meant to study the processes that produce fusion in nuclear weapons.

"To take a significant step forward, you must make a series of finite improvements." -- Donald J. Atwood, General Motors