Nuclear Weapons

Lasers Being Built in Livermore, CA Lab to Test Nuclear Weapons

Mn_national_ignitionAccording to the San Francisco Chronicle, a project designed to test the US nuclear arsenal is beyond the halfway mark. The plan includes an array of lasers that mimic the blasts of hydrogen bombs.

The most difficult and costly effort is the huge high-tech project at Livermore called the National Ignition Facility, or NIF, which would harness intense beams of light from a precisely linked array of 192 immensely powerful lasers focused at tiny millimeter-size targets.

The laser’s targets made of beryllium, plastics or carbon – each smaller than a pinhead – would be filled with the same hydrogen gases that make up the crucial explosive cores of H-bombs, and their mini-explosions would safely mimic the megaton blasts of real nuclear weapons that are many times the power of the atomic bombs that leveled Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan at the end of World War II.

Nothing like this has ever been tried before, and the costs are running into the billions of dollars.

If all of the facility’s lasers are complete by the current target date in 2009, project builders hope to achieve “ignition” the following year – meaning they expect to create the first tiny thermonuclear explosions confined inside their capsule targets, yielding no more energy than a pound of TNT, they say.

These lasers would simulate underground nuclear testing halted by the US and Russia, 15 years ago. The results would determine the viability of our nuclear weapons system. While lasers mimicking nuclear explosions could potentially be a preferable alternative to the real thing, the NIF project seems to be costly and unnecessary.

The Washington-based Federation of American Scientists has long opposed the project as too costly and unnecessary. Ivan Oelrich, a former Pentagon nuclear weapons analyst who heads the organization’s Strategic Security Program, conceded in an interview that the project is “on track now to achieve ignition,” but maintained that “the NIF could be ended now without reducing our confidence in the existing nuclear stockpile. And in any kind of rational analysis, it is not an economically valid project.”

“The physics community knows much more now about the behavior of nuclear weapons than it did before,” Oelrich said. And that, he maintained, means that the costly Livermore laser facility is no longer needed — if it ever was.

“It’s surrounded by a sea of scientific uncertainty,” said Christopher Paine, the nuclear energy watchdog at the Natural Resources Defense Council, a Washington-based advocacy group. “It’s just a huge gamble with no scientific integrity,” he said.

It would seem that, similar to most nuclear projects and proposals under this administration, the cost and benefit balance has been skewed once again, and that our tax dollars are being spent in a nuclear gamble, when they should be used for future disarmament efforts.

Categories: Nuclear Weapons

1 reply »

  1. It’s worth remembering that the NIF was initiated under the Clinton Administration, and fell behind schedule and over-budget then as well, so one can’t blame this Administration entirely. However, it is true that the utility of the facility for weapons-related testing has been controversial and questioned since the project began.