SPENCER MICHELS: East of San Francisco, the nation's largest and possibly most controversial science undertaking is rising on the grounds of the highly secure Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, one of the nation's key nuclear weapons facilities. It's called the National Ignition Facility-- NIF for short-- and it's designed to use giant lasers and other exotic hardware to produce nuclear fusion, a process that takes place only inside stars and thermonuclear bombs. NIF will try to ignite the fusion process in the lab, which has never been done before. The size of the project necessary to do that is staggering: A building as big as a football stadium, costing up to $4 billion. Manager Ed Moses:
EDWARD MOSES: This is a grand challenge, the kind of thing that national laboratories are made for, and the kind of thing that the United States has always excelled in.
SPENCER MICHELS: With nuclear testing banned by international treaties, George Miller, the associate director, says the scientific knowledge gained in the experiment will keep the nation's stock of atomic weapons up-to-date.
GEORGE MILLER: When a nuclear weapon ages, or when you have to remanufacture a part in a nuclear weapon, you want to make sure that it functions the way it originally did when you tested it. And to do that, you have to actually do experiments. It's sort of like if you're working on your car and you change the spark plugs, you want to start the car. Well, if you can't start the car, which you can't because of the nuclear test, you have to do a very good job of testing the spark plug.
SPENCER MICHELS: But NIF has been in trouble with Congress recently. It's years behind schedule-- the lab estimates about four years; others say longer. Lab officials say it's about a billion dollars over its original budget of $2.1 billion; others say more. In fact, everything about the project is on a colossal scale, as we saw when we toured the giant clean room with Ed Moses.
SPOKESMAN: This is where the preamplifiers will be.
SPENCER MICHELS: Workmen were beginning to assemble the superstructure that will hold the huge pipes enclosing the laser beams.
SPENCER MICHELS: How much bigger is this than the last laser program you had, Nova?
SPOKESMAN: Well, there's many scales, but in terms of energy, it's a factor of 60 times bigger than the last.
SPENCER MICHELS: When the project is finished, the laser light will be generated in the center of the building, then amplified 10,000 times and split into 48 separate beams. The beams will then be split four more times, making 192 beams. Each of those beams is steered into still more amplifiers that bounce it back and forth, boosting its power further. After the original light is boosted three billion, billion times, all 192 beams are converted into x-rays, before focusing on a tiny ball of hydrogen isotopes inside a cylinder the size of a cold capsule. The x-rays heat the hydrogen atoms to millions of degrees, fusing their nuclei. For a billionth of a second, the process is akin to what happens inside a thermonuclear bomb, but in a controlled way, so it can be studied.
SPOKESMAN: That's right, the laser beams are actually coming from here into these square apertures in the target chamber. And you can see they circle the target chamber, and there are several angles that they come in.
SPENCER MICHELS: But even creating the tiniest bit of fusion in the lab is a complex project. The target chamber, with holes for laser beams and monitoring equipment, is 30 feet across. No one's promising the experiment will actually achieve fusion. Some scientists like Alexander Glass, formerly at Livermore, say that uncertainties are inevitable.
ALEXANDER GLASS: Fusion, unlike many other technologies, can't be done small and then built up. You have to build a very large experiment in order to get into the regime of physics where you find out whether it works or not. So that's been the draw... the difficulty of getting support for this kind of project. You have to...it's based on hope and faith-- the hope that you'll learn the physics along the way that'll enable you to achieve the end goal, and the faith that when that end goal is achieved, it'll be in a form that's useful and practical.
SPENCER MICHELS: The flip side of the faith necessary for a big scientific research project is the uncertainty. NIF's numerous unknowns have attracted many critics. Some criticize specific projects, such as the 3,400 pieces of precision optical glass used to bend and transform the laser light. In tests, they've been vulnerable to damage by the high energy levels passing through them. Some critics said that the lab will even have to reduce the amount of light it will pump through the system by 45%. But lab officials say they've developed new approaches to the problem, such as efficient ways to grow the large crystals used for the optics.
LAB OFFICIAL: Even a year ago, people said we could not make the glass that was needed for the laser. You know, we're happy to report that right now we have a thousand pieces of glass in storage that meet all specifications. And really, the issues of technical hurdles that had to be overcome have basically been overcome at this point.
SPENCER MICHELS: There are also questions about the project's main purpose, developing data that will insure that older nuclear weapons are still reliable. The U.S. has about 10,000 nuclear warheads in its arsenal, but it hasn't tested any since 1992. Retired Livermore physicist Ray Kidder is one of several scientists who think that isn't a problem.
RAY KIDDER: The stockpile can be maintained in a safe and reliable way essentially for centuries, if you want, without the NIF -- without it.
SPENCER MICHELS: How?
RAY KIDDER: By-- by replacing the old warheads when they get green with mold or whatever, with new ones that are manufactured to the same specs as the old ones were, period.
SPOKESMAN: There's a basic flaw in that argument, and that is you cannot make something identical. Every... anybody who has any practical experience with manufacturing knows that even though you follow the recipe, even though you have the original specifications, there's lots of things in the original specifications that aren't controlled.
SPENCER MICHELS: In August, at the request of Congress, the government's General Accounting Office issued a report on the National Ignition Facility. It said that the cost overruns and the schedule delays were the result of a combination of poor management at the Lawrence Livermore Lab, and inadequate oversight by the Department of Energy. Lab management changed significantly after the cost and time problems became apparent. Congress gave the lab another $200 million this year, but Republican Senator Pete Domenici, who chairs the committee that funds NIF, says the project could still be scaled back or scuttled.
SEN. PETE DOMENICI: They found some big problems.
SPENCER MICHELS: Big problems like cost overruns?
SEN. PETE DOMENICI: Cost overruns, timeliness, whether they could actually put the entire number of these units together in an array that would work. We don't necessarily have to build it as big as originally planned, and can we keep it on schedule and at cost? If we can't, we don't spend the second phase, and Lawrence Livermore and the NIF project are out.
SPENCER MICHELS: So you're saying they're really on trial.
SEN. PETE DOMENICI: They're not only on trial, but they're seriously on trial.
SPENCER MICHELS: Domenici's criticism goes beyond NIF to the Department of Energy, which oversees it.
SEN. PETE DOMENICI: What I'm close to willing to tell you, that it may be endemic to DOE handling projects of this size. They may need to be held to a completely high... a much higher standard, the Department Of Energy, than they have in the past.
SPENCER MICHELS: But Madelyn Creedon, who oversaw the project for the Energy Department, said it's important to remember the size and nature of the challenge.
MADELYN CREEDON: We really are on the cutting edge of science. We're doing something that's never been done before, and that's maintaining the stockpile without nuclear weapons testing. So we're not building office buildings; we're building frontier science projects.
SPENCER MICHELS: Indeed, one of the goals, achieving nuclear fusion in the lab, has frustrated the best scientific efforts. Scientists hope fusion will be a step on the road to achieving cleaner, cheaper sources of electric power. For 50 years, they've experimented, first with magnets, then with a series of ever-larger lasers with names like Argus, Nova, Shiva, and Omega, trying to achieve fusion in a controlled way. Each fell short while constantly discovering new and unexpected obstacles to that goal. Critics like Christopher Paine of the Natural Resources Defense Council, think some of the obstacles were more than just a string of honest scientific failures.
CHRISTOPHER PAINE: They made claims for the performance of those systems that were not met, and that's a pattern in the procurement of Livermore's big science projects. Nova: They made claims that Nova would achieve ignition. It was scaled back. They built half the facility for the cost they had originally projected for the entire facility.
SPENCER MICHELS: But lab officials are confident they'll achieve the full energy goal, even if it takes longer than originally planned.
LAB OFFICIAL: I think we'll get it, you know. Nothing is guaranteed in this game, but I think there's a lot of reasons to believe it. It's been reviewed by the National Science Foundation and other prestigious communities, and they have given their go-ahead as something that has more than a 50% chance of success.
SPENCER MICHELS: One of NIF's big problems is focusing the 192 beams perfectly in order to heat the tiny target. Any miscalculations destroy the symmetry and the experiment. Alexander Glass used a silicone ball to illustrate.
ALEXANDER GLASS: Let's say this would be a sphere containing frozen hydrogen fuel, and the idea is to compress this to about one tenth of its radius. You have to do that by applying a force on the outside of the ball, and you can see what happens if... for example… I try to squeeze the ball and compress it. Well, the parts that I'm not... where I'm not squeezing pop out.
SPENCER MICHELS: The precise interaction between the lasers and the surface of the hydrogen is even more complex than that. It can be simulated graphically, but it taxes the power of the world's biggest supercomputer. The first laser beams are now scheduled to operate in 2004, and the list of scientists signed up to do experiments once that happens is already long. Madelyn Creedon is optimistic about the science and the politics.
MADELYN CREEDON: I don't think that, if we demonstrate that the program is on track, that we're sticking to the budget, that we're sticking to the schedule, and that we are in fact producing the laser light on schedule, that the program will be terminated.
SPENCER MICHELS: Meanwhile, construction of the huge facility continues. General Accounting Office auditors are planning to revisit the project in the spring to see if things are going better than they were.