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Fusion confusion

It is one of the most expensive scientific endeavours ever undertaken, heralded as the harbinger of a new age of clean, safe, and almost limitless energy – a miracle solution to both our energy and climate cataclysms. If it works, it would prove to be one of humanity’s greatest technological and intellectual achievements.

More than 15 years in the making, with a price tag of almost $4 billion, the National Ignition Facility in California is in hot pursuit of the energetic holy grail: nuclear fusion. Instead of splitting heavy atoms of elements like uranium to release energy, as in conventional nuclear fission power stations, nuclear fusion would squish hydrogen atoms together to create heavier helium atoms and release astronomical amounts of energy – the exact same process that goes on in the centre of our sun. 

By channelling the world’s most powerful laser through the largest optical instrument ever built, scientists at the NIF will try to recreate the reactions found in the hearts of stars by focusing 192 lasers onto a match head-sized pellet of hydrogen isotopes dropped into a 10-metre-wide chamber. If they get it right, the pellet will compress, the hydrogen atoms will fuse, and our energy supply will be ‘revolutionised’. Plus, fusion does not run the risk of running out of control, à la Chernobyl, and the waste leftover is far less radioactive and dangerous. For good reasons scientists have pursued the dream of commercially viable fusion for half a century, and it is hoped that they will finally achieve it next year.

But though it is not well-known, the main purpose of the NIF is not actually to produce clean energy. It says so right on their website:

‘To ensure the continuing reliability of the nuclear stockpile, [by] developing sophisticated supercomputer simulations to determine the effects of aging on nuclear weapons components as part of the National Nuclear Security Administration’s Stockpile Stewardship Program.’

Though the NIF is designed to surrogately produce climate-friendly energy and host peaceful scientific research (it will be used 10 to 15 per cent of the time for non-weapons related research, according to the National Research Council), the main purpose of the facility is to preserve and design weapons ‘of mass destruction’ (as some might like to put it). North Korea infuriated the international community this year by openly testing nuclear weapons, and it is hoped that thawing relations forged by Bill Clinton’s visit last week could lead to a denuclearization of the Asian country – while rich nations pursue new kinds of nuclear weapons that sidestep international treaties.

Because the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (though still not technically in force) has banned all nuclear explosions since 1996, the US military requires another route to research the mechanics of nuclear weapons and how to maintain existing stockpiles. Controlled fusion reactors provide that solution.

What’s more, research at the NIF and other facilities could lead to the development of new kinds of nuclear weapons; in particular, so-called fourth generation nuclear weapons that would be exempt from the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty.

Yet a recent article from The Guardian makes no mention of the military roots of the NIF. And a piece in the New York Times makes only a passing reference to it. The New York Times instead prefers to focus on the doubts surrounding the feasibility of fusion, but states that if successful the NIF ‘might lift civilization to new heights’ – which one can only assume includes the development of weapons of unprecedented sophistication.

Not all media outlets skim over the weapons intentions. The Economist, in a praising editorial titled On target, finally, correctly describes the main purpose of the facility: ‘It is the resemblance to bombs which has saved the project from the budgetary chop. For the NIF provides America with a way to carry out nuclear-weapons tests without actually testing any weapons. Had the NIF been a purely scientific project, it would almost certainly have been cancelled.’

Why then is the main purpose of the facility skimmed over by most news organizations, even when the NIF states its purpose? The prominence of the energy programme on the NIF’s official website, with the seductively pseudo-religious tagline ‘The Power Of Light’, may have something to do with it.

The promise of nuclear fusion for delivering clean and abundant energy is so great, many would argue, that the bellicose branches of its research facilities can and should be overlooked.

However, there is more than one way to crack a nut, and more than one way to combine two atoms: physicists can use magnets and heat rather than lasers in a process called magnetic confinement fusion, such as at the Iter research facility in France. Magnetic confinement fusion not only cannot be used as a surrogate for weapons research the way inertial confinement fusion (using lasers, as at the NIF) can, it also is far more advanced – scientists in Oxford already achieved fusion using this method in 1991 (though without a net gain of energy).

Of course, magnetic fusion won’t allow us to widen our knowledge of how to make thermonuclear weapons. But seeing as how we in the West learned how to unleash the explosive power of the atom more than 60 years ago, and we have since devised thousands of high-tech ways to ‘deter’ other nations from using them in turn, some might argue our research money, time and manpower could be better spent.