FYI: The AIP Bulletin of Science Policy News

House Defense Authorization Bill on National Ignition Facility

Richard M. Jones
Number 79 - June 7, 2012  |  Search FYI  |   FYI Archives  |   Subscribe to FYI

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“The Committee remains concerned about NIF’s ability to achieve ignition - the primary purpose of constructing the facility - by the end of fiscal year 2012 when the National Ignition Campaign ends and the facility is to transition to regular ignition operations and pursue broad scientific applications."- Senate Appropriations Committee

"As the first ignition campaign comes to a close in fiscal year 2012, it is a distinct possibility that the NNSA will not achieve ignition during these initial experiments. While achieving ignition was never scientifically assured, the considerable costs will not have been warranted if the only role the National Ignition Facility (NIF) serves is that of an expensive platform for routine high energy density physics experiments." - House Appropriations Committee

“The committee understands that achieving self-sustained thermonuclear fusion in a laboratory setting is a difficult undertaking and believes that achieving ignition at NIF would be a tremendously valuable and historic accomplishment. However, the committee is concerned that, should ignition not be achieved by the end of fiscal year 2012, the fiscal year 2013 budget request would continue an aggressive pace for ignition experiments at NIF even though the NIC [National Ignition Campaign] itself will be concluded.”  – House Armed Services Committee

Concerns about the National Ignition Facility in the House and Senate appropriations' reports for National Nuclear Security Administration were echoed in the report by the House Armed Services Committee accompanying H.R. 4310, the National Defense Authorization Act for FY 2013.  All three committees spoke of the difficulty of achieving ignition at this facility, and made recommendations about what strategies the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) should take in the future.

The following selection is from the Armed Services Committee House Report 112-479 regarding “Ignition and Support of Other Stockpile Programs.” Paragraph breaks have been inserted.  Other report language pertaining to the NNSA can be found on pages 235 – 239 and 321 – 354.

“Achieving fusion ignition in a laboratory environment has been a key goal of the Department of Energy’s (DOE) stockpile stewardship and nuclear energy programs since the early 1990s when the ignition mission was first identified by the DOE Fusion Policy Advisory Committee and the National Academy of Sciences Inertial Fusion Review Group. In the mid-2000s, the National Ignition Campaign (NIC) was developed to outline a path for using research facilities such as Sandia National Laboratories’ Z-machine and OMEGA at the University of Rochester’s Laboratory for Laser Energetics to inform eventual ignition experiments at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s National Ignition Facility (NIF).  The experimental schedule in the June 2005 NIC Execution Plan showed an aggressive timeline for beginning integrated ignition experiments in fiscal year 2010.

“Once fully operational in 2009, NIF scientists encountered several technical challenges that have slowed progress towards achieving ignition. By early 2012, several of these technical challenges have been resolved, but the remaining challenges and gaps in understanding remain significant. With the NIC scheduled to conclude in fiscal year 2012, NIC scientists and managers have significantly increased the rate at which NIF experiments are conducted in an attempt to achieve ignition before the end of the fiscal year in September 2012.

“The committee understands that achieving self-sustained thermonuclear fusion in a laboratory setting is a difficult undertaking and believes that achieving ignition at NIF would be a tremendously valuable and historic accomplishment. However, the committee is concerned that, should ignition not be achieved by the end of fiscal year 2012, the fiscal year 2013 budget request would continue an aggressive pace for ignition experiments at NIF even though the NIC itself will be concluded. The budget request for fiscal year 2013 contains $84.2 million for ignition experiments.

“The committee believes that, should ignition not be achieved, the scientists and managers associated with NIC should slow the ignition experimental schedule, take stock of the ignition-related experiments to date, thoroughly evaluate the remaining technical challenges and gaps in understanding, and seek to fully incorporate experimental data into computer models to enable better prediction of experimental results. The committee believes that, during this time, the NIF should increase its non-ignition high-energy density physics experiments in direct support of near-term stockpile stewardship needs. The committee therefore recommends $54.2 million for the ignition subprogram, a decrease of $30.0 million to the budget request, and $34.8 million for Support of Other Stockpile Programs, an increase of $20.0 million to the budget request.

“Elsewhere in this title, the committee recommends a provision limiting the availability of funds for ignition research and experiments until the Administrator for Nuclear Security certifies that fusion ignition has been achieved at the NIF or the Administrator submits a report to the congressional defense committees. The committee also believes that in a time of budget austerity, the top priority of the Administrator must be the achievement of the warhead life extension program goals and timelines that support military requirements.”

Later in the committee report is the following explanatory language regarding Section 3119 of the bill, H.R. 4310:

“Section 3119 -- Limitation on Availability of Funds for Inertial Confinement Fusion Ignition and High Yield Campaign

“This section would limit the obligation and expenditure of funds for fusion ignition research and experiments to not more than 50 percent until the Administrator for Nuclear Security certifies to the congressional defense committees that fusion ignition has been achieved at the National Ignition Facility (NIF) or the Administrator submits a report on fusion ignition. This limitation would not apply to the Z-machine at Sandia National Laboratories or the Omega facility at the University of Rochester.

“If the Administrator submits a report pursuant to this section, the report would be required to include a thorough description of the remaining technical challenges and gaps in understanding with respect to ignition; a plan and schedule for reevaluating the ignition program and incorporating experimental data into computer models; the best judgment of the Administrator with respect to whether ignition can be achieved at the NIF; and a description of how, if funding being spent on ignition research were applied to life extension programs, such programs could be accelerated or otherwise improved, and how this funding change would impact the stockpile stewardship program.”

Richard M. Jones
Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics
rjones@aip.org
301-209-3095