Troubled U.S. Laser Project Gets New Leadership

Jeffrey Atherton

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

Jeffrey Atherton has been named as the new director of the troubled laser fusion lab, the National Ignition Facility (NIF), at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) in California. Edward Moses, who has been running NIF for more than a decade as Livermore's principal associate director for the NIF & Photon Science Directorate, will remain in that role. Atherton is a long-time LLNL employee with extensive laser science experience.

The new role is needed, Moses says, so that Atherton can coordinate with scientists in the three major user communities that NIF serves: nuclear weapons researchers involved in maintaining the U.S. stockpile, fusion energy researchers, and basic scientists working with materials and in other fields. "He's had that role in a fundamental sense for the past year or so," Moses says. "So he's just the right guy for this."

NIF uses the world's highest energy laser to crush peppercorn-sized targets filled with fusion fuel (a combination of hydrogen isotopes) to a temperature and pressure greater than in the core of the sun. If the isotopes can be coaxed to fuse, forming helium, a lot of energy is released. NIF's ultimate goal is "ignition," a self-sustaining reaction that produces more energy than was pumped into the target by the laser beams.

NIF opened for business in 2009 with the target of achieving ignition by the end September 2012. When it failed to do so, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), which manages the facility, had to report to Congress on why it failed and what should be done next. The result is a 3-year "Path Forward" plan to better understand the physics of target implosions and figure out why the reality of the implosions is so far adrift from the predictions of the lab's computer simulations. As part of the plan, NIF must report its progress to Congress twice yearly. It is putting together its first report right now.

But NNSA has also stipulated that fusion energy research step aside in favor of more work on stockpile stewardship. Part of the rationale for building NIF was that weapons scientists could use it to validate simulations of nuclear explosions and so keep the country's nuclear stockpile safe and working properly. During the first few years of operation, the race for ignition took up 80% of NIF's time; now energy must take a back seat while weapons scientists play with the new toy.

Atherton says that he has two roles in his new position, which he took up on 1 May: "I have to make sure I understand the priorities of the communities we support, and then map the highest quality experiments onto the resources and capabilities of the facility." He says he started that process of consultation about a year ago so that LLNL could put together a road map for NIF's use.

Atherton says that it is too early to comment on the potentially painful cuts to NIF's budget called for by President Barack Obama's budget request for 2014. It calls for cuts possibly adding up to 20%. Nor would he comment on language in the budget proposal which calls for NIF to no longer financially support external scientific users of the facility.