Unresolved technical difficulties are likely to hinder the first test of the $3.5 billion National Ignition Facility (NIF) at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), concludes a Government Accountability Office report released on April 8. The test, scheduled for the end of the year, is intended to determine whether the facility can achieve nuclear fusion or ignition.
NIF is designed to use a complex and powerful 192-laser system to simulate on a tiny scale the temperature and pressure of explosions inside a nuclear bomb. The simulations will be used to test whether existing nuclear weapons will remain viable into the future without having to resort to underground testing. NIF will also carry out fundamental nonweapons research.
Under construction since 1997, NIF is over budget and years late. However, LLNL announced its completion last year, and facility scientists are now gearing up for NIF's first full test in December (C&EN, March 30, 2009, page 30).
GAO primarily blames weak management by the National Nuclear Security Administration, a part of the Department of Energy, for delays in schedule and substantial increases in costs and scope of NIF activities. The report's authors also hit NNSA for a four-year delay in implementing a recommendation of an independent group of weapons experts—known as JASON—who in 2005 called for establishment of a non-DOE NIF oversight committee. The oversight committee first met in December 2009 after many key technical and policy decisions had been made, GAO notes.
The delay in achieving ignition, however, may have little significance, the report adds, because many weapons experts, including JASON, have said regular refurbishment of current weapons without use of NIF will be adequate to ensure weapons work for at least another 20 to 30 years.
Achieving ignition in 2010 "was always a gamble," notes Roy Schwitters, chair of JASON's steering committee that reviewed NIF. "NIF is at the edge of science and that is where it should be."
JASON's point in its 2005 recommendation of non-DOE oversight, Schwitters says, was that DOE weapons scientists could gain from outside input from a "spectrum of views from the broader high-energy community."