Why Thomas Friedman Is Wrong About The National Ignition

By Hugh Gusterson
Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists
27 April 2009

Tom Friedman's brain is flat. That is the only
conclusion I can reach after reading his New York Times
piece on Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory's
National Ignition Facility (NIF). A flat brain cannot
tolerate complexity. It turns things--such as
globalization and laser facilities--into cartoon
versions of themselves.

The recently finished NIF is set to be the world's most
powerful laser system. It's a remarkable piece of
engineering. The size of a football stadium, its 192
laser arms are aligned to within 100 microns. They were
largely assembled by robots to keep them super-clean,
and they must converge within a few microns and a few
billionths of a second of one another in order to create
an evanescent star within the laboratory. Delivering
more than the entire energy supply of the U.S.
electrical grid for a few billionths of a second, the
laser strikes a tiny pellet of tritium and deuterium and
creates transitory pressures and temperatures greater
than those inside the sun--and all of this just a few
hundred yards from a suburban housing estate.

It's not clear whether Friedman knows about the NIF's
nuclear weapons connection and decided to leave it out,
or whether he cut so many corners in writing his piece
that he wasn't aware of it."

Friedman touted the NIF as a possible solution to the
nation's energy problems. In his characteristically
turbocharged prose, he asks, "What if a laser-powered
fusion energy power plant that would have all the
reliability of coal, without the carbon dioxide, all the
cleanliness of wind and solar, without having to worry
about the sun not shining or the wind not blowing, and
all the scale of nuclear, without all the waste, was
indeed just 10 years away or less? That would be a holy
cow game-changer."

He does note (at the end of the column, of course, where
it won't be seen by many readers), that he isn't sure
NIF can be made to work as a viable commercial
technology. But much of his golly-gosh evocation of NIF
(complete with a comparison to the USS Enterprise from
Star Trek) reads like a weak paraphrase of shovel-ready
prose from the lab's public relations department. Surely
New York Times readers have a right to expect more from
a high-profile columnist than an embellished press

Here are a number of important points Friedman did not
mention: Although the NIF has been funded through the
Stockpile Stewardship Program for the nuclear weapons
complex and presented to Congress as a vital facility
for training a new generation of nuclear weapon
scientists--ensuring that aging U.S. nuclear weapons
continue to work--remarkably, the words "nuclear
weapons" never appear in Friedman's column. Friedman is
right that the NIF could be a prototype for a fusion
energy reactor, and indeed, many Livermore scientists
were enthusiastic about working on it for just this
reason, but New York Times readers deserve to know that,
thus far, this supposedly miraculous energy technology
has been funded entirely by the nuclear weapons budget.

Although NIF has become a more open facility recently,
in the past those who worked on it at Livermore needed
security clearances, and the details of the target
capsule design were long classified because of their
relevance to hydrogen bomb physics. Many New York Times
readers might feel a little differently about Friedman's
miraculous new green energy technology if they knew that
it was so closely tied to nuclear weapons development,
and that the United States presumably would be concerned
if some countries (India and Japan come to mind) began
to develop such fusion reactors themselves because it
could help them better understand the science of
hydrogen bombs. We don't need to repeat the mistakes of
the Atoms for Peace program, when the U.S. government
enthusiastically encouraged the development of nuclear
energy technology all over the world in blithe ignorance
of the proliferation dangers this would entail.

It's not clear whether Friedman knows about the NIF's
weapons connection and decided to leave it out, or
whether he cut so many corners in writing his piece that
he wasn't aware of it. I appreciate that, in the harsh
world of a twice-a-week columnist, deadlines are a brute
fact, but there are times when a column isn't yet ready
for prime time.

Friedman also tells us that, if we want a follow-on to
NIF, "a pilot [fusion energy plant] would cost about $10
billion--the same as a new nuclear power plant." There
is no mention of a source for the cost estimate, which
is simply stated as fact. Not only does Freidman seem to
have accepted a publicist's number as true; he never
mentions that Livermore originally promised that the NIF
would cost $1.2 billion and open for business in 2001.
Instead, it has cost around $4 billion (estimates vary
depending on what you count) and construction wasn't
completed until this year--eight years behind schedule.
In other words, buyer beware when it comes to Livemore's
cost estimates for such technology. I once asked a
senior manager for the NIF how they came up with the
initial $1.2 billion cost estimate. I naively thought
he'd tell me that they added up all of the costs for
wiring, steel, glass, and labor, but somehow
underestimated. Instead he told me, with astonishing
frankness, that they decided how much they thought
Congress was willing to spend and worked back from

Given that early estimates in the 1950s substantially
underestimated the cost of commercial nuclear energy, we
might be suspicious of cost estimates today for a fusion
plant that, by amazing coincidence, have it costing the
same as a nuclear energy reactor.

The holy grail of laser fusion is "ignition"--getting
more energy out than you put in. "Once the lab proves
that it can get energy gain from this laser-driven
process," a breakthrough "the NIF expects to achieve" in
two to three years, we can proceed to the next step,
Friedman writes. Not "if," but "once." But is the NIF
assured to achieve ignition? According to some accounts,
there have been difficulties focusing the laser beams at
high energies. Additionally, early tests showed the
lasers shattering the glass lenses at the high energies
needed to approach ignition. Nor does Friedman mention
that Nova, the predecessor to NIF, also was supposed to
achieve ignition, but Livermore scientists later found
that, due to an error in their calculations, they had
dramatically underestimated the energy required for
ignition. Given these uncertainties, it's irresponsible
and misleading for Friedman to speak of ignition as if
it's assured.

This has implications for another issue that Friedman
doesn't raise--the expense of running a fusion reactor.
He talks about the initial construction costs, but
that's all. For a fusion reactor to be a viable energy
source, it would have to be fired as many as thousands
of times a day, but this puts immense stress on the
lenses and can burn them out. It's far from clear that
the economics can be made to work.

As one of the few people in the country who has written
consistently about Livermore, I often lament that the
NIF--one of the most expensive science programs in the
nation's history and an extraordinary technical
accomplishment for all its problems--hasn't received the
press coverage it deserves. And I'm in broad agreement
with Friedman's conclusion: "We need to make a few big
bets on potential game-changers. . . . At the pace we're
going with the technologies we have, without some game-
changers, climate change is going to have its way with
us." But that doesn't mean we should repeat the mistakes
that we made in the 1950s when techno-enthusiasts such
as Friedman helped incite the global efflorescence of
nuclear energy while minimizing the dangers of nuclear
weapons proliferation and the difficulties of disposing
of nuclear waste. By abnegating his responsibilities as
a journalist, giving us instead PR masquerading as
reportage, Friedman would lead us into the era of
nuclear fusion with our eyes wide shut.