Nature contradicts key officials concerning National Ignition Facility's original mission
The editors add some scolding for NIF's leaders' alleged "unrealism," "bluster" and "hubris".
November 8, 2012Published: November 8, 2012
By Steven T. Corneliussen
A search at Science magazine on the phrase "National Ignition Facility" yields well more than 100 hits spanning two decades concerning that $3.5 billion project at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Yet a recent pair of high-visibility publications about NIF reveal that outright disagreement remains about its original primary purpose. What has been the actual balance between NIF's twin missions in fusion energy and nuclear-weapons stockpile stewardship?
In a New York Times letter last month, Thomas P. D'Agostino, administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration, and Penrose C. Albright, the Lawrence Livermore director, asserted that " the fact is" that NIF "was conceived, designed, built and funded to conduct experiments that help replicate the conditions found inside nuclear weapons" and that fusion energy, though important, "has never been its primary purpose."
Never? An 8 November Nature editorial presupposes fusion energy as NIF's original primary purpose. After a headline highlighting a "switch," the subheadline explains that NIF "has so far failed to generate fusion energy, but repurposing it as a tool to study nuclear weapons and basic science could be its saving grace." The editors at one point explain, "In addition to carrying the far-off promise of clean energy, the facility also mimics the physics of nuclear weapons. Scientists at the lab will now use it to address questions about the ageing US nuclear stockpile." (The editorial never mentions the Times letter.)
The accompanying Nature news article "Laser lab shifts focus to warheads" opens this way: "After an unsuccessful campaign to demonstrate the principles of a futuristic fusion power plant, the world's most powerful laser facility is set to change course and emphasize its nuclear weapons research." The article details that campaign, then reports about the "course change": "Now federal officials and the US Congress are preparing to set a new direction," namely, "experiments that mimic conditions inside nuclear weapons."
At Nature, a world-leading science forum, have both the opinion editors and the news staff simply been misinformed over the course of two decades? Have they possibly been misled by fusion-energy hype that displaced awareness of NIF's stockpile-stewardship mission's primacy?
If so, their misunderstanding reinforces the scolding that the editorial adds. NIF's "great unfulfilled promise," the editors declare, "should serve as a cautionary lesson for scientists who promote Hollywood solutions from their research." Thanks to "bluster" and "hubris" at Livermore over the course of the last six years, they charge, expectations " have grown well beyond" credibility. They judge that in "many ways, the lab itself is to blame for the unrealism."
The editors even invoke scripture by alluding to the bible verse "Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall." NIF "reminds us," they write just before the end, "that the line between optimism and overselling is a thin one that can too easily be crossed." Last comes their allusion: "Pride comes before a fall. Now the NIF has to find its feet all over again."
Steven T. Corneliussen, a media analyst for the American Institute of Physics, monitors three national newspapers, the weeklies Nature and Science, and occasionally other publications. He has published op-eds in the Washington Post and other newspapers, has written for NASA's history program, and is a science writer at a particle-accelerator laboratory.