Saturday, March 17, 2012

Nuclear Non-Proliferation New Mexico Style

It was reported in the Rio Grande Sun (on March 8, 2012) that "Lab Cuts Threaten Valley", and that "Española Mayor and Rio Arriba County commissioner head to D.C. to lobby against slashed funding." These local concerns are a product of LANL's projected budgetary shortfall of $300 million for FY 2013, and its planned "Voluntary Separation Program", encouraging the early retirement of 400-800 current LANL employees. Local government officials worry about this LANL budget reduction because it will probably have a negative effect on the economy of northern New Mexico. Also upsetting local officials is the planned delay by five  years in start-up of construction of the ~$6 billion CMRR-NF facility at LANL. Although not directly impacting current spending levels, this delay represents a reduction in the level of planned future spending, over the next five years.

As we know, the economy in northern New Mexico is tied to DOE spending at LANL, which now amounts to ~$2.3 billion, annually.  Recent studies have shown that this spending results in a boost of ~$3 billion, to the New Mexico economy, a significant part of the ~$80 billion New Mexico Gross Domestic Product. Other significant US government expenditures in NM occur at SNL, at the WIPP site, and at several US military bases located around the state. Add to this Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid payments, and NM leads the nation in federal monies received, relative to dollars paid in federal taxes; e.g., NM receives ~$2 in federal payments for every $1 paid out in federal taxes.

More than half of the DOE money spent at LANL goes for nuclear weapons activities, and the planned CMRR-NF facility will support such activities. Thus, the local economy is closely tied to the nuclear weapons industry.

It is then a question of some interest as to whether the nuclear weapons work performed at LANL, and at SNL in Albuquerque, contributes to the US goal of promoting the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons know-how and nuclear weapons technology, as well as reducing the numbers of stock-piled nuclear weapons, or whether these nuclear weapons activities are themselves a form of nuclear weapons proliferation. Being partly a matter of opinion, these questions are political in nature and must be answered largely at the national level. But, as they say, "all politics is local" or, "all politics begins at the local level."

Myself, being a local guy (20 years in Española, NM), and interested in local politics, I too have opinions about these nuclear non-proliferation questions, as they pertain to activities at LANL as well as at other US nuclear weapons R&D sites.

Which brings me to my real topic for today: the latest attempt by members of the nation-wide nuclear weapons (NW) community to resell the US Congress on the idea that the present, and the planned next generation, Inertial Confinement Fusion (ICF) facility at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), in Livermore, CA, represent essential steps on the road to commercially viable ICF power generation; i.e., so-called Inertial Fusion Energy (IFE.)

In my view, this fantastic notion is being foisted on Congress as a means of obtaining its continued support for ICF, which is, in the absence of NW testing, a convenient tool for probing and refining current NW design calculations and a plausible means for helping to create new NW designs; i.e., as an essential element in the ongoing Stockpile Stewardship Program (SSP). This seems to me to be a proliferation activity, since it advances the state of knowledge of NW design and may even result in the creation of new NW designs.

Currently, hundreds of LANL scientists, as well as LLNL scientists, are working in the ICF experimental program at LLNL, and expect to continue to do so into the foreseeable future.

The present incarnation of ICF is a large laser-based machine at LLNL dubbed the National Ignition Facility (NIF), which was constructed over the course of ~10 years at a cost of ~$3.5 billion. Construction was completed in 2009, and the NIF experimental program has been unfolding ever since. It now appears, however, that NIF may not attain its main design goal; viz., ignition, before the end of 2012. For critical comments by a DOE expert and senior manager see
But, never mind, because a bigger, and more expensive machine is on the drawing boards. (A 1997 NRC committee report recommended that DOE proceed with construction of the NIF. At the time, the DOE estimated that NIF would cost $1.1 billion and be completed in 2002.) For a compendium of sources on IFE, as well as on the more scientifically mature Magnetic Fusion Energy (MFE) concept see the internet site

In this context, the National Research Council (NRC) released (on March 7, 2012) a preliminary study of ICF and its possible usefulness for IFE. (Interim Report-Status of the Study "An Assessment of the Prospects for Inertial Fusion At least four other NRC assessments of the IFE concept, not counting the current one, have taken place, from 1978 to 2007. Each of them identified ignition as the required next milestone. The final NRC study report is expected to be out this summer, in both a classified and unclassified version.

The difference in the two versions may be confined to the manner in which the subject of ICF target design is treated; e.g., in the level of target detail. Indeed, the NRC points out, in its unclassified preliminary study, that it is in the details of ICF target design that one expects to find the most proliferation sensitive information. Although, in the final version, this information will be classified as SECRET and unavailable by any legitimate means to potential proliferators, the accumulation of this material by the US ICF community may itself have been a nuclear proliferation activity; i.e., an activity prohibited by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

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