Plasmon's blog

About that nuclear fusion announcement

I’m sure you’re hearing about the National Ignition Facility (NIF) at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) finally achieved ignition, where they got more energy out from a fusion reaction than they got out. It’s a punchy headline, and I’m sure they were able to achieve a historic feat—however, something doesn’t feel right.

With the last round of historic feats from the NIF, there were peer-reviewed publications to go with them. In science, publications are the gold-standard—they list out your findings, methods, references, and other information like that. In this round of breakthroughs at LLNL, there’s only a press release, and plenty of news articles to go with it too.

LLNL’s press release has ten paragraphs of politicians saying “this is a historic breakthrough—we need to give LLNL more money,” along with one paragraph mentioning a single figure (the fusion threshold was passed at a 2.05 megajoule input, and output 3.15 megajoules—whether that was peak, average or total isn’t stated), a brief history of the NIF, and a few paragraphs stating that LLNL worked on the NIF and collaborated with a few other labs. There are no figures, no papers, and there’s no data to go through either.

How is any serious scientist, or any reasonably skeptical layperson, supposed to verify their results? Right now, they can’t. Investors and politicians, as we’ve seen many times, aren’t really serious, nor skeptical, about scientific claims—they don’t give a shit what’s in journals, they just care about what’s in the news.

I’m not saying the NIF didn’t achieve ignition, but I am saying that this is an egrigious case of science by press release designed to get politicians to give more money to America’s nuclear weapons program.

The press release’s emphasis on solving the energy crisis makes it attractive for politicians—and makes seem it innocuous, if not good—for the general public, but it doesn’t tell the full story. The release mentions the “nuclear deterrent”—a thinly veiled euphemism for nuclear weapons—but no one is excited to turn to ash in atomic fire, and neither is anyone excited to boil alive from climate change.

LLNL’s main goal—the thing it was founded to do—is to make nuclear weapons, and give the military more advanced technologies—it shares that goal with Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) and Sandia National Laboratory, the two other National Nuclear Security Agency (NNSA) laboratories; more specifically, LLNL focuses on making warheads and payloads, the things that are responsible for destroying whole cities, vaporizing people, and making the survivors drink fallout-poisoned water—the NIF is just another part of that system.

Of course, no one—except for batshit military fiends—wants to fund more nuclear weapons, yet the NIF is an incredibly expensive endevour. It costs well over $100,000,000, and contains the most powerful, and energy-intensive laser on earth. What better way to get funding than to drum up hype in the press?

Perhaps a paper will come out soon, and it will be truly game-changing—or, perhaps, it will be the subject of a Bobby Broccoli video. LLNL’s Silicon Valley roots really show here, giving all this pomp and circumstance to something new—whether or not it will end up like Theranos or Ninovium is a different story.

#Physics #Science