Physicists and politicians are rallying to the defense of the Omega laser at the University of Rochester (U of R) in New York, an iconic facility in the search for fusion energy that President Donald Trump has proposed defunding.
The move to wind down the lab over 3 years, included in the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) fiscal 2019 budget request released last month, came as a bolt from out of the blue. In addition to being a mainstay of efforts to figure out how to use lasers to create fusion energy, the 23-year-old facility also does pioneering work in studying matter at high-energy density. And it has been deeply involved in DOE’s stockpile stewardship program, which aims to ensure the reliability of U.S. nuclear weapons. “We were not consulted, there was no discussion whatsoever,” about the funding change, says E. Michael Campbell, director of U of R’s Laboratory for Laser Energetics (LLE), which runs the laser. “It makes no sense for the long-term vision of how stockpile stewardship works.”
The budget request calls for a 20% reduction in DOE’s inertial confinement fusion (ICF) program, which supports Omega, to $419 million. The request would initiate the 3-year phaseout of the LLE by cutting its budget from $68 million in 2017 to $45 million in 2019. (Congress has yet to set the 2018 budget.)
Fusion is the process of generating energy by melding together light atoms; it requires heating the fusion fuel (hydrogen isotopes) to tens or hundreds of millions of degrees. Inertial confinement fusion achieves this by crushing tiny capsules of fuel with intense laser or magnetic field pulses to achieve the required conditions. The hot, dense plasma produced is also the state of matter created in a nuclear explosion, hence the importance of this field to understanding nuclear bombs in the absence of explosive testing.
Omega led the field from 1999 until 2005, when it was overtaken by the National Ignition Facility (NIF) at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, California, but it continues to do important work refining the fusion process. “Omega does 80% of the shots in this field,” Campbell says.
The president’s request also calls for cuts to fusion work at NIF and an immediate axing of funding to the Nike laser at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) in Washington, D.C. “The loss of NRL and eventual loss of LLE would greatly reduce the physics capability and innovation in the ICF program,” says NRL’s Stephen Obenschain. A program to manufacture fusion targets and support for academic scientists who want to use the facilities would also be cut.
Leaders of the U of R lab are making frequent trips to Washington, D.C., to win over members of Congress who will make the final decision on spending. Researchers from other labs have also been sending letters of support. “They all asked what they could do to help,” says Riccardo Betti, an assistant director at LLE.
Omega’s closure would have “irreversible and disastrous ramifications for maintaining the safety and reliability of our nuclear stockpile,” Richard Petrasso of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT’s) Plasma Science and Fusion Center in Cambridge wrote in one letter to Representative Joe Kennedy III (D–MA). “Such an action would be calamitous for the field and would largely eliminate, not only for MIT, but for all other universities, the training and education of Ph.D. scientists working in [high energy density physics].”
Fifty-one fusion researchers from across Europe signed a letter to Energy Secretary Rick Perry stating: “The Omega lasers … are the world’s most productive facilities in fielding experiments in high energy density physics. They are not only key to the mission of the US national laboratories but also accessible to the larger academic community to carry out experiments that often led to breakthroughs in physics … we petition the US government to reverse this misguided decision.”
Lawmakers are alert to the issue. At a hearing yesterday on fusion research held by the House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, Representative Paul Tonko (D–NY) noted that LLE had been “targeted for severe cuts” in the budget request. “Omega deserves our support,” he added. NIF Director Mark Herrmann, who was giving testimony, said, “It would be a great loss if LLE shut down.” Committee member Representative Bill Foster (D–IL) agreed that it would be “tremendously damaging, especially to NIF.”
Senator Charles Schumer (D–NY), the Senate’s top Democrat, is also supporting the lab. He visited LLE on 5 March and said: “Let me be clear, I will work hard to vaporize any efforts to cut or eliminate Rochester’s laser lab.” He also said that he “will be urging Congress to include $75 million worth of federal funding for the LLE” in this year’s appropriations bill, which Congress expects to complete later this month.