The U.S. government shutdown has snuffed out the world’s most powerful laser facility. Researchers yesterday began standing down the National Ignition Facility (NIF) at the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, anticipating a 21 October lab shutdown unless Congress agrees to fund government operations. The lab will wrap up preparations today, because it is giving workers a holiday on Thursday and Friday.
“We don’t know how long we’re going to be shut down,” says lab spokesperson Lynda Seaver. Congress could vote as early as today to end the spending impasse and reopen the government, possibly by Friday.
Shutdown operations have also begun at DOE’s two other facilities that are primarily focused on nuclear weapons research, the Los Alamos and Sandia national laboratories headquartered in New Mexico. “Without a resolution to the budget impasse, Los Alamos will complete the transition to closure as of the end of business on Friday,” wrote Los Alamos Laboratory Director Charles McMillan in a memo to employees. All told, more than 10,000 workers at the three labs, which are run by DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration, could be idled by the shutdown.
Meanwhile, most work continues at the 10 national laboratories run primarily through DOE’s Office of Science. Those labs have said they have enough money left over from the last fiscal year to keep operating for a few more weeks.
At Livermore, NIF’s closure will delay work on nuclear weapons research and efforts to understand why the facility has failed to achieve controlled nuclear fusion. The lab also conducts nuclear stockpile safety, high-performance computing, manufacturing, and life sciences research. The facility employs 7000 people; about 450 safety and environmental managers will stay on the job as essential workers if the shutdown continues.
California politicians are urging Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz to make sure any furloughed workers receive back pay. “Employees of our national labs are worried that they won’t be able to pay their bills next month if the shutdown continues,” said Representative Eric Swalwell (D-CA) in a 14 October statement.