Thermonuclear weapons could be dangerous, but they’re also a mystery.
This is why physicists at U.S. Department of Energy’s primary laser facility broke their own record earlier this month when they generated quite 10 quadrillion watts of fusion power, consistent with a recent post on the scientific journal Nature.
While the energy only lasted for a fraction of a second, it reached a scale equivalent nearly 700 times the generating capacity of the entire US electrical grid at any given time.
However, unless this landmark reaction is repeated soon, scientists may struggle to reproduce & verify the precise experiment, potentially stalling scientific efforts at the very edge of nuclear weapons research.
US supercomputers are analyzing what happens in a fusion reaction
The breakthrough helped raise spirits about the issue-prone National Ignition Facility (NIF), which aims to supply more energy than it requires to run, to achieve a sustained fusion reaction.
The $3.5 billion facility in Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, California, was designed to analyze fusion reactions at the hearts of thermonuclear weapons, not operate as a fully-fledged power station.
But in the wake of a U.S. ban on underground nuclear testing in 1992, Department of Energy suggested the NIF become a part of an expansive Stockpile Stewardship Program, which tests the reliability of nuclear weapons without actually triggering a detonation.
And with the newest laser-fusion breakthrough, scientists are starting to believe the NIF might succeed at this purpose, not just for war, but peace, too.
“That’s really the scientific question for us at the moment,” said Deputy Director Mark Herrman of Livermore, in Nature report.
“Where can we go? How much further can we go?”
The NIF did not achieve its initial goal of reaching a fusion ignition by 2012, since which scientists have worked to customize the facility & optimize targets in the reaction chamber.
The new record was a result of several changes through-out the labyrinthine system, from laser precision, to improved target-fabrication techniques, to diagnostics.
This comes on the heels of decades of efforts to create a comprehensive program which can study the nuclear arsenal of the United States via supercomputers at NIF, additionally to other research facilities.
At that time, scientists tested explosives & nuclear materials & components.
Time is crucial for repeat laser-fusion natural process
Of course, NIF is not detonating bombs, but experiments there might enhance our scientific grasp of how weapons detonate, which could cut-down uncertainties (and perhaps the inherent fatal accident of such weapons).
Further experiments may additionally investigate how the weapon fares against intense radiation bursts which may happen in a fully-fledged war environment. But, naturally, not everyone agrees.
Critics argue that power could be unnecessary to maintaining U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile, suggesting that National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) is curious about developing new nuclear weapons, rather than simply practicing maintenance on older ones at minimal cost.
“That shows either an enormous amount of hubris, or an incredible confidence that you can build a lot of what we need for the next 50 years, even without a functioning NIF,” argued the Head of the Nuclear Information Project Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists, in Washington, D.C.
Hermann thinks NIF offers an alternate to the limited experimental data that weapons scientists have when evaluating computer simulations of detonations.
A further test to replicate NIF team’s August 8 success might happen in October, but sooner it happens, the better, because slight variations in the tuning of the lasers or the manufacturing of the target capsule could lead on to vastly different results.