Locklin on science

Anatomy of a Fusion press release

Posted in big machines, Design by Scott Locklin on March 5, 2014

Listening to the nonsense mindlessly parroted  by media outlets, you’d think we were a few months away from limitless fusion power. I’d like to believe that. I’d like to believe my country was still capable of making important technical breakthroughs. Just as I’d like to believe my country’s foreign policy isn’t run by simpering baboons who don’t know a Cossack from a cassock.

Unfortunately, I went to college, and I once worked in a government lab, so I know better. The actual news behind the recent fusion press release is no cause for rejoicing. NIF isn’t be something we should be lionizing in the press; it’s a national embarrassment. The people who made the press release certainly know this. Unfortunately, the people who read the press release couldn’t be bothered to understand anything about it.


What is NIF? NIF, or “national ignition facility,” is a bunch of  big lasers, designed to implode a pellet of deuterium and tritium well enough to achieve fusion “ignition.” Ignition means, the reaction is self sustaining; the fusionables burn after you light them on fire, so to speak; just like the regular-world definition of ignition. LLNL had hoped to have achieved ignition by now, but they haven’t. NIF construction also took about four times what it was supposed to cost, and was turned on five years behind schedule. The original management team (including perennial presidential candidate Bill Richardson) was excoriated in the GAO report. This is a terrible record, even for a government program. But it gets worse…

In 2012, Congress reviewed the project, wondering why the project had not yet achieved ignition. They’re in deep shit with their paymasters. It’s now 2014, and they still haven’t achieved ignition. Hence this press release, just in time for the 2014 fiscal year.


What did they announce in this press release? Well, they claimed a kinda-sorta “scientific break even.” Supposedly, they got 5×10^15 neutrons out, which somehow is higher than the energy they managed to impart on the actual target. This is, to say the least, deceptive. The energy obtained in this reaction was allegedly as high as 14KJ. The energy put into the reaction was 1.8MJ. Their “break even” assertion is that the 1.8MJ laser flash managed to put slightly under 14KJ on target. An article in science magazine mentioned this back in 2013, when the first press release hit; mentioning that the 1.8MJ pulse is about the same as a two-ton truck going 100mph, and the imparted result was something like a baseball going 50mph. The author didn’t mention that the energy required to generate the two-ton truck laser pulse required a few hundred two ton trucks worth of energy input, because the laser system uses old school flash-tube pumped YAG technology, but that’s a factor also. All this totals to around 3 * 10^-5 away from true break even. Unfortunately, LLNL made another press release a week or two ago, essentially repeating the September 2013 press release, and nobody bothered checking with a grown up.

NIF as an engineering project actually does what it promised; it consistently delivers 2MJ UV laser pulses. Laser inertial confinement is an old idea at LLNL, and it was an ambitious engineering job to get to this point. As an engineering project, I have to admit it’s pretty cool; the high energy pulse control, the giant KDP crystals  and the deformable mirror optics is all good stuff. It ought to be, considering it cost 4X what it was supposed to, but the engineering of the device  is blameless. It’s the physics that failed.

While the history of NIF is marred by some lousy management, we have a pretty good idea of why it has failed to do what it is supposed to do. The computer models used to calculate the physics of a laser pulse hitting a target: they don’t work. They’re making a prediction which is at least a factor of 5-10 off from what is observed, in terms of energy absorption.  Worse; the  material used to compress the fuel seems to have unpleasant characteristics which tend to snuff out the fusion reaction, slowing the neutrons and generally behaving differently than it is supposed to (as documented in this review PDF) and nobody understands that either.

So, the actual fuel doesn’t work like it’s supposed to, and neither does the “match” which is supposed to light it on fire. This should not be a great surprise. Computer simulation works fairly well when you understand all the physics, and when the equations are well behaved. It doesn’t work at all when you leave out important physics, or when the equations are badly behaved. I’d expect something like a highly focused megajoule nanosecond UV laser pulse on exotic materials to be something which falls into the “not so well behaved” class of physical models. I’m guessing the recommendations in the review article are being followed, and the NIF folks are attempting to adjust their models using some indirect observations and calibrations. I think they’re also taking a punt by fiddling with beam pulse shape. It appears the “good” result of September 2013 happened via the latter technique.


One of the saddest things about this debacle is the JASON committee recognized problems with the computer models back in July of 2005 (see page 44-48 of this report). The same group has also pointed out that, one of the alleged benefits of NIF, that of stockpile stewardship,  is a mirage, as tiny little explosions don’t have a whole lot to do with great big explosions. That would be true, even if the thing worked.

Sadder still, we didn’t need the JASON committee to tell us this sucker was going to fail. The history of inertial confinement fusion at LLNL provided ample evidence that NIF would fail. Consider the last laser inertial confinement project at Livermore: the NOVA project. It, too, claimed that it would achieve ignition, and using a much smaller laser. They claimed you’d only need tens of kilojoules to achieve ignition. Its performance as far as break-even goes was approximately the same as what NIF has done so far (I think it released 10^13 neutrons, which is about what you’d expect from a laser which generates two orders of magnitude less power). It did so with a much lower energy laser pulse. They blamed all kinds of stuff for its failure, but at the end of the day, the physics of the laser/plasma and “shell/fuel” interaction is poorly understood. This was somewhat known back in the 1980s with the results of the Halite-Centurion experiments. These test results, classified and done with nuclear weapons, seemed to indicate that the implosion approach might need as much as 100MJ laser pulses to achieve the goals of NIF.

Following “current events,” while the thing was being built would also have been instructive. Our media class seem to enjoy making fun of the corruption among the ruling classes of Slavic countries. I figure it is a fair cop; those places are pretty blatant in their corruption, at least looking at things from over here, but the media also almost always overlook corruption in America. This is inexcusable, as this is their job. I can laugh at the Rooskie without any assistance from the tittering pustules in the New York Times. Their only excuse for taking up space is to unearth corruption in America. They don’t do this very well. Here’s a few little pieces of information about NIF from way back in 1999-2003; mostly ignored by the media, yesterday and today.

  1. The review committee responsible for signing off on this project was widely viewed as stacked in LLNL’s favor. Having witnessed a few DoE national lab committees; this is fairly common, and a really bad idea if you think the idea of “peer review” is useful. There are also rumors that a certain DoE bigwig (one who got his job via bribery; common enough for political appointees these days) who engineered this, hoped to profit from NIF, as he owned a laser optics company. I  have been unable to verify it with DoE old timers, but if it’s true, well, I’m not a reporter, but someone should have noticed …
  2. The associate director of NIF in 1999, E. Michael Campbell, had to resign, as it was revealed that he never got a claimed Ph.D. in physics from Princeton. He had a soft landing; he got a job at General Atomics afterwords, and eventually got a Ph.D. from some lesser school. I hear he was a decent physicist; you don’t need a Ph.D. to be good at this kind of work. But this is shady business. It was a scandal at the time, but somehow nobody thought to investigate whether or not this fraud’s main project was also a fraud.
  3. A NIF whistleblower, Lee Scott Hall, was brutally stabbed to death in 1999. Hall was one of the NIF designers. I didn’t know him, but I know people who knew him. He definitely wasn’t into any shady business, and by all accounts was a straight shooter and a decent guy. This … really looks like a man was stabbed to death for pointing out that NIF couldn’t work (or any number of other things). Sure, nobody knows who killed him, but this is at least as shady as anything I’ve heard of happening in Russia. This sort of thing has happened quite a few times to whistleblowers at the Department of Energy.
  4. Two NIF whistleblowers who didn’t die, Les Mikolsy and Luciana C. Messina, were ignored, then fired in 2003. They were involved in the code that controlled the giant contraption, and pointed out some serious problems with it, including problems with safety implications, and the management of the project. Not a peep from anyone about their assertions or the lawsuit they filed against LLNL (it was dismissed; yay objective and completely non-corrupt court system!).

One of the greatest problems with the United States of America right now is a complete lack of accountability among our ruling classes. People still get fired; never the managers who break things. Maybe patience is necessary in this instance, and that inertial confinement fusion is “coming real soon now.” Maybe Ed Moses should be frog marched to the firing squad, or made to peel potatoes until he pays the taxpayer back the billions his gizmo cost. One thing is certain though: NIF, and all who are involved with it (heroic whistle blowers excluded), are presently national embarrassments. They have failed, and they should be roundly mocked for it. This isn’t a matter of, “gee, we should wait a little longer,” this is a matter of, “they promised it would work factors of 100 or 1000 better than it does several years ago, and they have failed repeatedly.”

Wanna know why human progress has slowed? Talented people wasting their lives on crap like NIF, which only exists because of corrupt empire builder bureaucrats in white laboratory jackets.

Interesting links:



31 Responses

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  1. Brian said, on March 5, 2014 at 3:13 am

    Excellet. Finally something I can get my head around.

    • Brian said, on March 5, 2014 at 4:51 am

      esp love the stuff on corruption and media.
      Journalism used to keep the system honest. Now even 60 Minutes is full of crap.

      • Scott Locklin said, on March 5, 2014 at 6:54 am

        Was NIF being touted in 60 minutes? Certainly I heard about their sucking up to the NSA creeps. I guess it would be no great surprise.

      • William O. B'Livion said, on March 5, 2014 at 2:29 pm

        What do you mean “Now even…”? They’ve been full of crap for a long time.

  2. Stanislav Datskovskiy said, on March 5, 2014 at 4:19 am

    Quite likely that Hall was zapped because: he actually grabbed the brass ring!

    Who wants the secret of the fissiles-free thermonuke (which is the ultimate endgame of working laser-initiated fusion – instant ‘glass parking lot,’ zero fallout, proliferation without any need for rare materials) in the hands of mortals…

    • Scott Locklin said, on March 5, 2014 at 6:59 am

      Har, if only. While it could simply have been someone didn’t like the cut of his jib, it looks like old fashioned, “you better not say anything.” I guess he hadn’t thought of internet dead man switches in those days.

  3. John said, on March 5, 2014 at 8:51 am

    Fusion is about eight minutes away, and will remain so for another billion years.

    • Scott Locklin said, on March 5, 2014 at 8:58 am

      12 minutes if you use 10baseT.
      Thorium: I guess it’s too easy.

      • John said, on March 5, 2014 at 10:30 am

        Thorium is sexy, particularly designs that run hot enough to do high temperature electrolysis (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/High-temperature_electrolysis), which would be a great first step toward providing a carbon-free hydrogen economy. You don’t strictly need thorium to do that, but it meshes well with the fluorine salt design that seems to be the default way people think of thorium fuel cycles.

        Alas, I don’t think anything can be sexy enough to compete with the dead cheap method of digging coal out of the ground. I suspect people will keep digging up coal till our entire modern energy-intensive civilization collapses, and then whatever after-the-end remnant of humanity remains after the die-off will STILL keep digging it up.

        • Toddy Cat said, on March 5, 2014 at 4:24 pm

          Personally, I’d be willing to bet that we (meaning the human race) will get fusion power sometime in the next 100 years or so. But these jokers aren’t going to be the ones who find it.

          • Scott Locklin said, on March 5, 2014 at 6:33 pm

            There’s two possibilities that look interesting right now. Both are being done by private ventures. I’ll eventually get around to reviewing the one that google isn’t funding.

            • Toddy Cat said, on March 13, 2014 at 5:16 pm

              I look forward to it. I always find your insights and opinions interesting. Any thoughts on the whole Ukraine thing? Do you think that the leadership class in the U.S. is mad, evil, or just deeply misguided? Or is there some other alternative that I’m not seeing?

              • Scott Locklin said, on March 14, 2014 at 8:29 pm

                It’s pretty clear there is an unaccountable shadow government consisting of people like Nuland and her husband running a pointlessly combative and expansionist foreign policy. Someone in the US State Department should have been fired over the occupation of Crimea (it’s not an “invasion” when your soldiers are already there: when I was there, I saw Russian soldiers everywhere). People like Kerry are senile window dressing; it’s the bureaucrats from the think tanks who are running the show. It’s possible it has always been thus; for example, during the downfall of the Soviet Union, we obviously helped a little. One of the defining characteristics of the modern American shadow government is, they’re not even hiding any more. I suppose I’d have supported this sort of activity against the Soviets, but I do not support it against any modern government short of North Korea or Burma.
                Russians: also being assholes, but rational, legalistic assholes: much closer to adherence to international law than the US, from what I can tell.
                Ukraine is filled with wonderful people, but it’s evident they lack any capacity for self government from lack of practice since Cossack times in the 1600s. The fact that they let “Yatz” be in charge … I mean, what’s the difference between him and Yanu? They’re both crooks. The Ukrainians would be best off ceding their sovereignty to the Royal Family of Liechtenstein.
                I had actually planned on spending this summer in L’viv.

                • Toddy Cat said, on March 17, 2014 at 7:27 pm

                  Agreed. I was the coldest Cold Warrior you could imagine back in the 1980’s, but once Communism collapsed, I didn’t see any reason why we and the Russians couldn’t be friends. I had always has some admiration for them as adversaries, and I hoped that we could work together. No such luck. Funny how all the liberals who told us that the Russians were no threat back in the Cold War are now the people who are telling us that Putin is the ultimate enemy. I guess that there are some lefties out there who will never forgive the Russians for giving up on Communism.

                • Roger Bigod said, on March 25, 2014 at 7:16 pm

                  What we see is a fight among our Nomenklatura, suggesting a fracture line in the shadow government. It’s between the neocons (Nuland & Co.) and the realists (e.g. Kissinger). There’s a lot of moving parts, but one interpretation was that the neocons wanted to make Putin look bad. He came across as a wise statesman in defusing the Syria situation. Ginning up wars in Syria and Iran will be easier now.

                  I can’t think of any conflicts within the science Nomenklatura that have spilled over into the general press. In the links you posted, the trouble came from lower level technical guys who were upset about the waste.

                  • Scott Locklin said, on March 25, 2014 at 10:57 pm

                    I read “In the National Interest,” “Foreign Policy,” and “The American Interest” in a regular basis. While Steven Walt occasionally makes “realist” noises, and NI is considered “Realist,” as far as I can tell, the Neocons and the Liberal Interventionists have all the power and money. Hell, they are even the same people in some cases; Victoria Nuland (Liberal Interventionist) is married to Kagan the neocon. These two groups also have virtually 100% of the staff at CIA, State and the Defense Department. All the Kissenger Realists are retired.
                    This is a scary place to be. Neocons want to blow things up because … explosions, and ridiculous ethnic quarrels. Liberal interventionists want to blow things up because … the chilluns! The only people who consistently say no to this nonsense are the people.

                    • Roger Bigod said, on March 31, 2014 at 12:47 am

                      I admire your patience in following that stuff. I don’t like to soil my beautiful mind, but I did run across a link to this:


                      It’s a mashup of opinion from the Best and Brightest, whose theme is that Putin is paranoid. There is no mention of Ms. Nuland’s role in selecting the government of the New Ukraine. I wonder who the intended recipient of the message was. Obama? Realists on the White House staff?

                    • Scott Locklin said, on March 31, 2014 at 12:56 am

                      As pathetic as it seems, our Foreign Policy elites (Walt and a couple of others excepted) really do seem to believe that manner of nonsense. That’s what makes things so dangerous right now.
                      Our FP dude/ettes are … Lisa Simpson. Theirs are FSB operatives. They’re both pretty crazy and not understanding the other fellow, which is what diplomats are supposed to do. I’ve probably read The Guns of August too many times, but the overweening stupidity of the whole thing harshes my ‘do.

  4. William O. B'Livion said, on March 5, 2014 at 2:32 pm

    “The computer models used to calculate the physics of a laser pulse hitting a target: they don’t work. ”

    What you say?

    Computer models aren’t reality?

    Next you’re going to tell me that the computer models around Anthropogenic Global Warming are of questionable veracity.

    • Scott Locklin said, on March 6, 2014 at 4:25 am

      I would never make such an assertion. Mostly because I don’t feel like arguing with religious people who enjoy burning heretics.
      It has occurred to me that an AR(1) model would (probably) fit the observed last decade and a half of temperature data a lot better than the super complex models that have been touted.

  5. neutrino_cannon said, on March 5, 2014 at 5:34 pm

    How does this scam work internally? Does everyone just pretend that it’s a stepping stone to inevitable progress? Does everyone pretend like they really have a handle on what’s going on, and it just needs some more time and tinkering? Does everyone pretend like science is always realized by massive trial and error, and that they just need to keep grinding?

    How on earth do you rationalize this sort of thing?

    • Scott Locklin said, on March 6, 2014 at 4:18 am

      At the lower levels, aka the people who actually do things, they simply want a job that allows them to play with lasers and shit. I don’t blame them. Jobs are nice to have, and not many involve giant lasers. At the middle management level, people want to send their kids to private school. I don’t think anyone at these two “practical people who do honest work every day” levels actually have the time to scratch their chins and smoke the tobacco pipe enough to figure out that the thing can’t possibly work. Some of them, no doubt, are demoralized or have vague feelings of discontent. Being modern Americans in a decaying culture, they probably think it is something curable with prozac or yoga or something, and so they take their little pills, tie themselves into pretzels and carry on.

      It’s entirely possible the upper managers are oblivious to the fact that this monstrosity won’t work, or somehow truly believe they can overcome the obstacles. Upper management at national labs don’t always consist of the sharpest tools in the shed. However, I expect quite a lot of them are dishonerable men who do realize it. I mean, Congress noticed. When was the last time Congress noticed anything? They still haven’t noticed that the 1.5 trillion dollar F-35 is a piece of junk, but they managed to figure out that the $7 billion NIF thing is a turkey.

      Oh yeah, they also never hire guys like me to kick things and look at numbers and tell them they’re full of shit. Nobody does. We live in the era of the TED talk and the yes man, where everything is possible and nothing gets done. Hence, crap like Nanotech, and perpetual motion machines being hawked on Kickstarter. And NIF.

      • William O. B'Livion said, on March 7, 2014 at 3:01 am

        The F-35 is a piece of junk that makes LOTS of money for defense contractors and union labor.

        I suspect there ain’t a lot of union labor in the NIF.

        What do you think of Polywell?

        • Scott Locklin said, on March 7, 2014 at 3:32 am

          I think I wrote about Polywell’s predecessor fairly recently (recently for me). It’s a better idea than this big laser thing. Haven’t heard anything positive from the Navy on their efforts to fund the thing; not lately anyway.
          Breakthroughs often occur at the margins. I mean, who ever heard of fracking 20 years ago? Oddly, I knew a guy who was working on diffusing detergents through sandstone for Exxon, but I couldn’t imagine what good it was. I think even he had a weird idea as to what good his research was (the way I remember him describing it; you could pump more out of oil wells using the idea).

          • maggette said, on March 14, 2014 at 12:14 pm


            the uncle of my mom was working as a salesman for a large dutch chemicals company. He did a lot of intersting work (like making deals and trading with the Soviet Union back in the cold war era). He once told me that they were talking to Statoil about pumping chemicals into the ground to extract gas. I think it was in the early 70s. But Statoil discarded that concept back then (to risky, not profitable back then and they already somehow predicted that the productivity of the upstream decreases at a much faster rate. Something the “Frackinmania” movement is realizing right now!)

            Again another interesting post. Keep them coming:)

  6. John said, on March 5, 2014 at 11:10 pm

    With a name like National Ignition Facility, they really ought to be working on a way to set the entire nation ON FIRE.

    • Scott Locklin said, on June 17, 2014 at 6:46 pm

      If you read carefully above: the last press release, they released 14,000 joules. This one … 17,000 joules. 14,000 joules was 3×10^-5 away from break even. So, this is a continued chronicle of failure. Same old ballgame.

  7. Lem said, on September 20, 2014 at 4:01 pm

    My favorite is all the articles now citing the “amazing” and “crucial” work being done on NIF to support stockpile stewardship. And how critical NIF is to stockpile stewardship. Don’t we have a million other, more powerful lasers that can easily conduct those sorts of tests? And more and more news articles and the publicity on the labs’ websites even mention NIF’s original claim of achieving ignition….it’s all about stockpile stewardship and ASC….never mind that LANL poo pooped the need for ASC for many years….

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