Jeffrey LewisNational Ignition Facility

The National Ignition Facility (NIF) at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory comprises 192 lasers that will use inertial confinement to conduct nuclear weapons and fusion experiments. The project is the largest facility ever constructed at Livermore.

For the technically inclined, three scientists from Los Alamos, Lawrence Livermore and the University of Rochester have written a paper describing the facility . For the rest of us, the Wikipedia does a serviceable job.

Originally estimated to cost about $400 million, GAO estimates NIF will now cost about $3.9 billion (yes, with a B) by the 2008 start—and that estimate is already five years old.

Not surprisingly, some Senators (read: Domenici) have noticed that $ 3.9 billion (or what’s left—2.8 B has already been spent) could fund a lot of science in states that aren’t California.

Defenders of the NIF have a new argument. If the project isn’t fully funded, our nuclear weapons will stop working:

George Miller, a veteran nuclear weapons designer at Livermore, said the laser’s absence would lead to an erosion in the confidence that the weapons are reliable and safe.

“There are very serious implications to canceling this project,” said Miller, the associate director of the Bay Area lab. “You have to seriously question the commitment to maintain nuclear weapons.”

Cue the dramatic music.

Ian Hoffman in the Oakland Tribune (via John Fleck) finds some folks who disagree with Miller:

Livermore’s most prolific weapons designer, retired physicist Seymour Sack, calls NIF “worse than useless” because it draws money and attention from the less-glamorous examination of weapons for signs of degradation and replacement of the parts that break down.

“There’s a lot of nonsense” in claims that without NIF, the nation won’t have confidence in its weapons, Sack said. “It’s not a purely useless boondoggle but in terms of any critical element of understanding of the stockpile, my answer is no.”

Retired Sandia weapons manager Bob Peurifoy said the big laser makes “an interesting scientific playpen.” Its beams will create 100 million-degree temperatures,crushing pressures and an incredible density of energy, taking scientists on a tour inside a miniature sun.

“I understand that some scientists just wet their pants to use this thing. NIF is fun science,” Peurifoy said. But “NIF has little if anything to do with the present and future health of the enduring stockpile.”

The Natural Resources Defense Council has been waging a legal battle against the NIF and has a helpful resources page. I hope Chris Paine will give us an update.


  1. Michael Roston (History)

    It’s long past due the time that we change the terms of the debate on “confidence” in the nuclear arsenal.

    From the way many nuclear weapons scientists describe it, we can never ever be confident that our weapons will go off – the only bomb you know will go off is one that has already exploded. Scientists working in the employ of the nuclear weapons labs said as much to David Samuels in last month’s Harper’s – despite the explosion of more than a thousand weapons in live nuclear testing, we still don’t know how plutonium really works. It really just appears that we’re lucky when it does.

    Ergo, we can never be “confident” in the functioning of our arsenal.

    The confidence test needs to be based on the following assessments:

    1. The adversaries we are seeking to deter with our nuclear arms need to be confident that our weapons will not go off if we launch, and feel secure that our use of our arsenal will not end their regimes, not to mention their nations.

    2. Subsequently, confident that American weapons will not detonate, the adversaries we seek to deter will choose to deploy their own nuclear weapons due to confidence that we cannot strike back, or even strike first.

    That seems like the honest confidence test to me.

  2. Jeffrey Lewis (History)

    Here are some excerpts from the Harper’s story. If anyone wants the full text, let me know:

    The last American nuclear test was conducted on September 23, 1992. A laconic press release issued by the Department of Energy on that date stated simply, “An underground nuclear test was conducted at 8:04 A.M. (PDT) today at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Nevada Test Site.” Codenamed Divider, it was the sixth American nuclear test that year. Jim Magruder was running the Divider test from the Department of Energy’s office in Las Vegas. A fit, taciturn man in his early sixties who looks like a retired astronaut and dresses like a real estate agent, he accompanies me on one of my first visits to the test site.

    “I think once you shut a program down it’s awfully hard to start it up,” Magruder says in a flat Kentucky twang, as he gazes out at the crater through big, square, gold-rimmed glasses, “whether you have the personnel that used to do the work or not.”

    His companion, Larry Krenzien, dresses like an engineer, with a silver watch on his wrist and a practical, short-sleeved shirt. His voice is confident, easy, and deep, as befits a man who has worked on 400 or 500 nuclear tests during his lifetime, including Divider. He transferred permanently out to the test site in 1964, after working at Los Alamos and in the South Pacific during the atmospheric-testing program. Back when the Air Force would fly through the clouds after each test collecting debris, Krenzien was in charge of analyzing the radioactive samples from the clouds.

    “I went out to Enewetak in ’58 for two tests out there,” he tells me. “Butternut, I think was one. Cactus was the other. They had steak every night, as many as you wanted. The beer was selling for five cents a can. It was pretty good living.”

    When I ask Krenzien about ‘the glory years of exploding nuclear bombs at the Nevada Test Site, his face creases with pleasure.

    “I can remember that C-47 coming in with the device, and I would drive down in a regular flatbed truck and load it myself, get up there, put it in the building, lock the door, and go away,” he recalls.

    “The two-man rule wasn’t very much respected,” Magruder adds.

    “Back in the early days, they shipped it complete,” Krenzien explains. “It was one box, and that was it. At one time our warehouse man said he had more weapons than the U.S.S.R., and he probably was right.”

    Over the life of the American nuclear-design program, the scientists at Los Alamos and Livermore designed 71 different warheads for 116 nuclear-weapons systems, at a total cost of nearly $800 billion. This year, the Department of Energy will spend $6.5 billion on nuclear weapons, and it plans to spend a total of $35 billion over the following four years, an amount that in real dollars equals what Ronald Reagan spent in eight years on nuclear weapons at the height of the Cold War.

    “Do you think you saw the last American nuclear test?” I ask Krenzien.

    “I don’t know if I want to answer that,” Krenzien says, turning to Magruder. “We have inexperience on the test site and inexperience in the labs.”

    “The last time we did a test there was nothing over fifteen stories in Las Vegas,” he reflects. But with the revitalized plutonium-pit production scheduled for 2007, a multibillion-dollar tritium-production program funded by Congress, deliveries of refurbished nuclear weapons scheduled for 2006, and billions of dollars earmarked for the computers and visualization theaters at Livermore and Los Alamos, it is impossible to ignore what’s in the offing. Both Stephen Younger, the former associate director of the weapons program at Los Alamos, and C. Paul Robinson, the current director of Sandia, have publicly advocated the development of a new generation of strategic nukes. As the Defense Department’s Nuclear Posture Review explained to Congress at the beginning of 2002, “While the United States is making every effort to maintain the stockpile without additional nuclear testing, this may not be possible for the indefinite future.”


    Just across the Mercury Highway from Divider is a green shot tower for Unicorn, a “subcritical” test that will happen sometime this year. A few hundred yards away from the Unicorn tower is the grave site of Ledoux, an underground nuclear test from 1990. Ledoux is now embedded in the Ula Complex, a tunnel system dug in the 1980s and 1990s to serve as a reusable home beneath the desert for low-yield nuclear tests.

    I am met at the top of the shaft by Rafi, a cheery bearded man who works beneath the desert as the test-group director for Los Alamos. His full name is Ghazar Papazian, and he was born in Egypt, he tells me, as I lace on a pair of miner’s boots next to a sticker that reads, “If you ain’t a miner, you ain’t shit.” When I ask him what America learned from setting off more than a thousand nuclear explosions on, or under, our own soil, he gives me a scientist’s answer:

    “What’s odd about that data set is that for every nuclear test, the codes that run that nation, if you will, are calibrated to that specific test. So for System A, if it had six different tests, the density would change for each of those tests. Because to make the code work and give you the right answer, you had to turn knobs.” We pass through a security gate and get ready to descend into the hole. “What we’re trying to do with subcrits is to eliminate the knob turning and give the folks who do code development a single data point as far as what the density of plutonium is at a specific pressure.”

    Eventually, and with much patience from Rafi, two extraordinary ideas enter my brain: (a) that the entirety of 1,054 American nuclear tests has netted us less than a single second’s worth of usable data, and (b) that we still know far less than we need to about the properties of plutonium.

  3. Stephen Young (History)

    Somewhere in that same Harper’s article is an amazing statement, by the author, saying something like “Does anyone doubt that we will need to resume nuclear testing within five years to maintain the arsenal?”

    Well, for one, the National Academy of Sciences does. See:

    But, hey, why take the Academy’s word when some yahoo says different.

  4. Allen Thomson (History)

    “we still know far less than we need to about the properties of plutonium.”

    Apparently so. During the mid-1990s, the JASONs were involved in studies of stockpile maintenance; some of the resulting reports are available online.

    During that time, I had an interesting lunch at the American Cafe in Tysons Corner with one of the involved JASONs, who said that the long-term problems with plutonium metallurgy/chemistry were still so worrisome that many of them were strongly in favor of moving to all-uranium primaries. That would mean an accompanying penalty in clunkiness, but with a lot fewer worries about whether the primary would yield sufficient yield after twenty years on the shelf. How to deal with tritium decay was a separate question.