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To Power a Nation

The National Ignition Facility (NIF) is a blimp hangar-sized array of 192 laser pathways whose pulsed rays are amplified to high power, and bounced through an elaborate arrangement of mirrors, to converge simultaneously upon a pea-sized target filled with deuterium and tritium (heavier isotopes of hydrogen), for the purpose of compressing it to the point where nuclear fusion reactions occur, and net energy is produced. NIF is located on the grounds of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) about 50 km east of San Francisco, California. The construction of NIF recently finished (31 March 2009), and it is beginning its planned schedule of operations. Construction began in 1997, and was delayed by numerous problems of technical design and fiscal mismanagement. All of these problems grew out of the ‘undersales job’ scheme used by LLNL in the late 1990s to get NIF approved by the US Congress; the facility promised by 2002-2003 for $1.1B-$1.2B actually arrived in double the time and four times the cost. (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Ignition_Facility for an overview of NIF; however, note 44 is incorrect.)

The columnist Thomas Friedman recently rhapsodized on NIF in the pages of the New York Times, essentially offering an advertising supplement about NIF’s potential to make nuclear fusion power a reality, with abundant energy for the nation without greenhouse gas penalties nor radioactivity worries. Friedman’s hyperbole was punctured by Hugh Gusterson, in a critique published by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. The significant point in Gusterson’s critique is that NIF is entirely a nuclear weapons program; Friedman does not mention this. All the hoopla about fusion, and beating climate change with a new “game changer” technology that provides ‘limitless’ energy is delusional ‘free-lunchism’ used for promotional purposes — something like the Hollywood hype about Panavision and Cinemascope in the 1950s.

Nuclear bombs are devices with chemical high explosives that implode shells of uranium or plutonium, with interior balloons of deuterium and tritium, to such high densities that fusion and fission reactions occur and an enormous amount of energy is released suddenly by the conversion of atomic mass to energy (E = m c-squared). Nuclear weapons will only have functional value if their design is proved by some test. This requirement has motivated the many nuclear tests carried out since 1945 by the nations that maintain nuclear arsenals. A large specialized infrastructure and technical workforce is needed to maintain a nuclear weapons capability. Such a “nuclear weapons complex” is an expensive item in any government’s portfolio. The expense is one disincentive to acquire or keep a nuclear weapons stockpile; other disincentives being the difficulties, dangers and risks of working with large amounts of highly radioactive material, and the many international political difficulties brought on by brandishing nuclear arms.

Can a government keep a nuclear weapons arsenal at reduced cost and also bypass the ‘danger’ and ‘political’ disincentives, by eliminating most of the weapons testing infrastructure and workforce, and instead relying on the virtual reality of computer simulations of performance, cross-checked with extremely miniaturized experiments inside a conveniently-located laboratory? NIF is the US yes to that question. Other nuclear weapons powers have or are building similar facilities, though smaller.

There are excellent technical arguments as to why computer simulations coupled with facilities like NIF can never duplicate the actuality of testing full-sized weapons, but they are of lesser importance because the real issue at hand is whether nuclear weapons are necessary at all. I think not, and made my case elsewhere. If nuclear weapons are unnecessary for the implementation of government’s policy, then NIF and facilities like it are also unnecessary.

However, what if the popular will of a nation deems its nuclear weapons a necessity, will its NIF-like facility satisfactorily replace full-scale testing? It will help for that purpose, by creating conditions of extreme pressure and temperature in radioactive (uranium-235 and plutonium) and non-radioactive metals, and by compressing deuterium and tritium micro-balloons to the point of initiating fusion reactions, so that measurements from micro-experiments can be compared with computer simulations of them, and in this way correct and refine the computer codes that model the intricate physics. These codes could then be used with a bit more confidence to design full-scale weapons. However, the predictive jump from micro-experiments to full-scale weapons, without the corresponding full-scale tests, would always leave major doubts. So, there will always be some experimentation at larger scale, though it might not proceed to the point of explosion. The U.S. carries on “subcritical tests” (below the point of sustained nuclear chain-reactions) of normal-sized radioactive devices, underground at the Nevada Test Site, to monitor the aging nuclear stockpile; and tests of the implosion dynamics of normal-sized devices, with non-radioactive surrogates of similar density for the radioactive materials in actual warheads, which are carried out at the Dual-Axis Radiographic Hydrodynamic Test facility at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

But, what about the potential for pure fusion, can NIF open up a new era?, can it transcend its nuclear weapons origin? It is quite likely that NIF will eventually fire enough laser light energy quickly enough onto a deuterium-tritium target, and compress it to the point of releasing more nuclear energy through fusion reactions than the amount of laser light energy applied to it. Achieving this “ignition” would be a first step in a long process of development of a practical power generation system. Since nuclear radiation would be given off from the reacting target, the interior walls of the evacuated NIF target chamber would intercept and contain this radiation, and become radioactive. This is only a maintenance problem for NIF, given the low duty cycle (few shots per week), but it is a significant design issue for a practical generator (several shots per minute), where either flowing material or a periodically replaced solid liner must coat the walls to intercept the nuclear and atomic radiation and convert it to heat and electricity for use externally. Wall material that eventually degrades because of radiation damage and becomes too radioactive will have to be disposed of as solid radioactive waste. There are many ideas about wall design and the design of practical Inertial Confinement Fusion (ICF) systems, but the solutions to these problems still remain in the future.

Is the investment in NIF as an ICF system prototype a wise public policy, regardless of NIF’s role for nuclear weapons? This depends on the type of society you wish to power, and when you hope to begin doing so. If you wish to power a corporate-controlled society with the same type of capitalist ideology that suppresses popular democracy and aspirations, as in the U.S. today, and you are prepared to wait another generation for practical fusion-powered energy systems, then ICF is a wise use of the public’s money. What has value in a capitalist system is to “corner the market” or have “exclusive ownership.” In such an economic system, essential resources like: energy, patented (genetically modified) basic food types, clean water, metals and hydrocarbon fluids, are all sources of profit to “owners” who can meter out these resources to “consumers” connected through “distribution grids” to centralized nodes of ownership control. You put on a light in your room, and apply energy (and contribute to pollution) generated in another county, state, province or nation; and you send your electric utility payment to some collection agency address at another distant point.

If you prefer to organize society in a socialist, or socially-democratic, or classless or at least more egalitarian and certainly not corporate-controlled manner, where government is the instrument of popular will rather the plutocrats’ and corporatists’ protector from it, then you would prefer a decentralized national energy supply system, where the generation, control of, storage and use of energy were all local. And, you would want such a system to be available now. This is solar power, and the meshing of local solar-wind-hydro power sources into local networks. We already have all the technical knowledge to implement such a system, really a national network of local or micro-networks. Solar energy focused as heat onto pipes carrying oil along the focal axes of parabolic trough collectors, and the oil transferring its heat through a heat exchanger to water, generating steam, which in turn drives a turbine that turns an electric generator, can produce electricity from sunlight with from 1% to 5% efficiency, steadily during the day. The best expectation for NIF is for a release of fusion energy at about 10% of the electrical energy supplied to power the lasers for that shot; and recall, the conversion of the fusion burst to useful power is still to be worked out.

Solar energy converted to electricity with 1% efficiency, on 2% of the land area of the United States, would generate 100% of the electrical power used by the nation: 13,300 kilowatt-hours-per-capita (kWh/c) for 300 million people, for the nation’s 4 trillion kilowatt-hours (4 x 10-to-the-12th-power kWh). It is quite likely that over 2% of the land area of the U.S.A. exists as sunny rooftops and marginal lands in government-owned areas, such as military bases, and could easily host a publicly-owned national solar-thermal energy system. Excess power generated during daylight could drive pumps hoisting water uphill into large reservoirs that would be drained to generate hydro-power for nighttime use. Other forms of energy storage include electric batteries, compressed air, and flywheels. Obviously, added capacity on a national solar grid could provide power to synthesize hydrogen fuel (for example by electrolysis of water, inefficient, but free of CO2 generating combustion) for transportation vehicles powered by thermal engines (e.g., hydrogen fuel cell engines for propeller-driven airplanes, a sports car for my dotage) instead of electric batteries or rails (as in ground mass transit systems).

Wind-power is the most abundant source of non-fossil non-nuclear energy today. Offshore wind (imagine wind derricks instead of oil derricks) can supply a great deal of energy, and it has been estimated that the United Kingdom could generate all of its electrical power from the winds over the North Sea, a source that is likely to remain eternal in comparison to the oil underneath that sea.

Only a military of the type we have today (for wide-ranging colonial wars, and strategic intimidation) would want to remain heavily dependent on hydrocarbon fuels (for low mileage jet planes, tanks and warships) and nuclear power (for the floating air bases called aircraft carriers, and the submerged missile bases called submarines). The best future is with widely-distributed systems of local and personal “green power” generators. I leave it to other occasions to elaborate, but realize that there are no technical hurdles, they are all political.

NIF belongs to the mentality that sees the taxi meter and the cash register (and their more elaborate expressions) as the purpose of social organization. After many years and more billions of public money, it may lead to a power technology that produces more kilowatt-hours. But, this flow of energy in unlikely to be as safe, reliable, freely available, poverty alleviating and socially uplifting as could very easily be the case today.

MANUEL GARCIA, Jr. can be reached at mango@idiom.com

More articles by:

Manuel Garcia, Jr, once a physicist, is now a lazy househusband who writes out his analyses of physical or societal problems or interactions. He can be reached at mangogarcia@att.net

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