Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s (LLNL) National Ignition Facility (NIF) recently announced, amid much fanfare, that they had achieved a major breakthrough in the quest to achieve controlled nuclear fusion.  To quote the official LLNL press release dated Dec. 13: “On Dec. 5, a team at LLNL’s National Ignition Facility (NIF) conducted the first controlled fusion experiment in history to reach this milestone, also known as scientific energy breakeven, meaning it produced more energy from fusion than the laser energy used to drive it.” This is significant because every prior laboratory experiment, at NIF or elsewhere, has up to now only been able to stimulate nuclear fusion reactions by introducing more energy to heat the nuclear fuel than is actually released in the fusion reaction.

At the heart of the NIF experiment is a special system that focuses 192 high-powered laser beams onto a small target containing the nuclear fuel, rapidly heating it and causing it to undergo nuclear fusion. Nuclear fusion is the process whereby light atomic nuclei such as deuterium (an isotope of hydrogen consisting of one proton and one neutron) and tritium (a different, radioactive hydrogen isotope—one proton, two neutrons) combine together to form a helium nucleus, and energy in the form of heat and radiation is released. This is the basic process that powers all stars, including the Sun. It’s widely thought that if this process could be replicated and controlled here on Earth, it could provide essentially unlimited clean, carbon-free energy. For this reason, there has been considerable excitement in the mainstream media surrounding the NIF announcement, with outlets such as Financial Times claiming, “The technology’s potential is hard to ignore … a small cup of the hydrogen fuel could theoretically power a house for hundreds of years.”

But what’s missing from the media reports is the fact that the idea of “net energy gain” as reported by NIF means something very different to the scientists than it does to the general public.  As reported by LLNL, some 1.5 times as much energy was released as was consumed in the NIF fusion event.  However, this does not account for the energy required to power the NIF lasers, let alone the pumps to provide the water needed to cool them, among dozens of other energy-hungry support systems. When any of this extra energy is taken into account, the “energy gain” actually becomes a loss. At best, the lasers used by NIF are only 1% efficient, which  means that instead of 1.5 times as much energy coming out of the fusion reaction as went in, it was actually closer to 0.007 times as much energy that came out as went in.

In her remarks at a televised press conference, LLNL director Kim Budil made the point that although the NIF result is an important first step, we are still at least three or four decades away from turning the technology into a viable means of powering the nation’s electrical grid. Notably, she was careful not to say anything about the extremely low efficiency of the NIF lasers—this revelation did not come until the so-called “technical discussion panel” portion of the press conference geared toward a technical audience. Clearly, there’s a very long way to go before this project begins to look anything but incredibly wasteful. So why even bother with it in the first place?

The answer to this question lies in the connections between NIF, the recent fusion result, and U.S. nuclear armament. At the same press conference, U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm was quick to point out that the primary significance of the NIF achievement is that it “… strengthens our national security because it opens a new realm for maintaining a safe, secure, and effective nuclear deterrent in an age where we do not have nuclear testing.” 

Of course, there are several problems with this statement. First, the very notion of nuclear deterrent is an abhorrent fallacy. As was pointed out elsewhere by Workers’ Voice, the act of deploying a strategic nuclear weapon is tantamount to conducting a mass-scale suicide bombing of the sort that ends in the extinction of our entire species; in such a context the concept of deterrence is rather meaningless. Second, nuclear weapons are actually antithetical to any kind of “security” for the world. They are only technically useful for upholding imperialism, which was why they were even developed in the first place, and their very existence puts everyone on the planet—plus many, if not most, non-human species—at risk.

Third, there can never be anything “safe” about these weapons—the specific devices that Secretary Granholm was alluding to are thermonuclear bombs, by far the most destructive single instrument ever devised in all of human history. Just one of these devices is on average over 50 times more powerful than the weapon dropped by the U.S. on Hiroshima. “Safe” thermonuclear bombs are like non-toxic cigarettes—a ridiculously obvious oxymoron. But aside from these problems, what was most telling about Secretary Graham’s remarks was the emphasis on nuclear “security” rather than on the prospect of using nuclear fusion to produce clean, carbon-free energy.

Also at the press conference was National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) Administrator Jill Ruby, who reiterated the same talking points by reflecting on how the NIF facility enables detailed understanding of the U.S. strategic weapons stockpile without the need for nuclear testing. According to Dr. Ruby, thanks to the work done at NIF, “… in many ways we now understand our nuclear weapons better than when we were testing.” This strongly suggests that the main purpose of NIF is actually to exploit loopholes in the various nuclear test-ban treaties that have been in force since the ’80s

While the details of how exactly this is done are classified, it is reasonable to assume that NIF workers are essentially creating miniature nuclear explosions with yields well below the threshold set by the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). Presumably this is done using NIF’s powerful laser system to ignite peppercorn-sized replicas of the primary detonation stages of the thermonuclear weapons being manufactured. Indeed, these miniaturized versions of the thermonuclear primary stages, called hohlraums, are manufactured and supplied primarily by San Diego-based defense contractor General Atomics (GA).  (This is the same General Atomics that is responsible for the infamous Predator drone program which the Obama administration first tried to hide, and then ultimately had to admit had killed the unintended target, usually a civilian non combatant, some 90% of the time.) According to one employee, some of the hohlraums that General Atomics supplies to LLNL are for fundamental science, and as such are often written about in the scientific literature, while others are classified and are only handled in a secret wing of the GA lab facilities by individuals with secret security clearances.

All of these developments drive home just how important it is to call out the hype surrounding the nuclear fusion activities at NIF for exactly what it is: a thinly-veiled ploy by the U.S. state to manufacture consent for an incredibly dangerous thermonuclear weapons program, which only exists to serve its imperialistic objectives. There already exist numerous proven sources of low-carbon and carbon-free energy, not to mention methods of realizing energy efficiency, that are far more practical and can be deployed much more quickly than nuclear fusion. Moreover, the NIF and LLNL nuclear-bomb-making activities are needlessly damaging to the environment and public health. The soil and groundwater in part of the area surrounding the NIF facility (which is close to the California towns of Livermore and Tracy) are badly contaminated with industrial chemicals as well as radioactivity from tritium as a direct result of the activities at the lab. One location near Tracy that is of particular concern is Site 300, which as of 1990 has been designated a federal Superfund site.

Instead of continuing to invest in NIF and the other LLNL weapons programs (which consume the vast majority of LLNL’s $1.5 billion annual budget), we could instead be redirecting these resources to environmental cleanup and simpler, more practical clean energy pursuits. Of course, this will not happen as long as the imperialists and their capitalist enablers continue to set our national priorities and agenda. Overcoming this insidious status quo is going to take unprecedented levels of international worker solidarity together with a massive escalation in the class struggle; only then will there be a chance to set our world onto an equitable and sustainable path.

Photo: The multi-billion-dollar National Ignition Facility used 192 laser beams to create net energy from a pellet of nuclear fuel. (Damien Jemison / LLNL / NNSA)