Infighting Among Rival Theorists Imperils 'Hot' Fusion Lab Plan

For most of the public, the word "fusion" refers to the recent claims by University of Utah chemists of a way to produce boundless energy in a jar at room temperature. But research on "hot" fusion, the attempt to simulate within the laboratory the enormous pressures and temperatures that fuel the stars, has been under way for more than a generation. And it was only last year that the press was reporting a possible breakthrough from experiments in which scientists subjected tiny capsules of hydro

Jun 26, 1989
John Horgan
For most of the public, the word "fusion" refers to the recent claims by University of Utah chemists of a way to produce boundless energy in a jar at room temperature. But research on "hot" fusion, the attempt to simulate within the laboratory the enormous pressures and temperatures that fuel the stars, has been under way for more than a generation. And it was only last year that the press was reporting a possible breakthrough from experiments in which scientists subjected tiny capsules of hydrogen isotopes to extremely high temperatures and enormous pressures by blasting them with radiation.

The results of these classified experiments in the Nevada desert were hailed as a "historical turning point" in the field, known as inertial confinement fusion. And the government seemed ready to act quickly. The Department of Energy (DOE) announced that the next step would be a laboratory microfusion facility(LMF), which could cost more than $1 billion. A design would be chosen in 1991, DOE officials said, and construction could begin as early as the following year. Those steps excited the small community of ICF researchers, who had toiled for years in relative obscurity.

But their optimism was shortlived. Plans for the laboratory are now on hold, possibly forever. And the reason isn't just the considerable cost of another high-energy physics project.

The fall from grace of the LMF is a story about the darker side of big science. The race to acquire a new facility exacerbated an already cutthroat competition between the three DOE-funded national laboratories that have conducted much of the work in the field. In fact, each faction has attacked its opponents' plans so savagely that government officials now wonder if it's really possible to build such a facility at all.

The origins of those differences can be traced back a quarter century, when United States researchers began what has turned into a $3 billion effort to generate fusion - in the form of miniature thermonuclear explosions-by means of inertial confinement. Although inertial fusion in the U.S. began as-and technically remains - a weapons program, most researchers say their primary goal is to produce a cheap, limitless source of energy.

After several years of hard work, the first major advance in the field occurred in 1974, when scientists at a tiny Ann Arbor, Mich., company, KMS Fusion Inc., announced that they had detected neutrons after irradiating a hydrogen target with a laser. Their timing couldn't have been better. Motorists were waiting in long lines for gasoline, and a permanent energy shortage seemed imminent.

Reacting quickly, Congress provided all three of DOE's national weapons laboratories-Lawrence Livermore, Los Alamos, and Sandia - with money to build ever-larger machines to do classified studies of the concept. (The late Richard Feynman reportedly accused proponents of ICF of having an "edifice complex.") There was even enough money left over to sustain smaller, unclassified programs at KMS Fusion, the Naval Research Laboratory outside Washington, D.C., and the University of Rochester.

The original movers and shakers in the field were an exceptionally talented and outspoken group of scientists. They included John Emmett of Lawrence Livermore; Gerold Yonas, who ran the Sandia program and later became the chief scientist for the Strategic Defense Initiative; Moshe Lubin, who founded Rochester's program; Gene McCall, a leader at Los Alamos; and Keeve ("Kip") M. Siegel, the founder and namesake of KMS Fusion. "You put those people in a locked room," says Erik Storm, who now heads the Livermore program, "and I guarantee that they would fight."

Siegel, for one, believed that his company was destined to bring inertial fusion to the world. And he literally died fighting for it. In 1975, after intense lobbying by Siegel, Congress's joint committee on atomic energy (since disbanded) held a hearing on inertial fusion. Siegel arrived to plea for more funding for KMS Fusion, but he never heard the answer-a heart attack killed him while he was testifying.

In the two decades that ICF has been a subject of federally funded research, no person has exerted a greater influence than Emmett, who supervised laser research at Lawrence Livermore from 1975 to 1988. Even Emmett's critics acknowledge his enormous contribution. "Without him, I doubt if the inertial fusion program would be here today," says John McCrory, who now directs the inertial fusion program at the University of Rochester.

But Emmett's reputation is not flawless. "He didn't have the maturity or self-confidence not to be threatened by the little guys," McCrory says. "He could have been more of a unifying force and gotten more money for all of us." As an example of Emmett's abrasive style, McCrory recalls the time that Emmett turned to him during a public meeting and said, "I wish we had a decent university involved in this program."

Emmett, who resigned from Livermore in April after having been given a new assignment last summer and is now a consultant, makes no apologies for his past behavior. "I know this field as well as anyone on the planet," he says. "I would expect there is a lot of professional jealousy."

But Emmett's departure is not expected to heal the open wounds within the field. In fact, some observers say that the competition is so fierce-"back-stabbing" and "cutthroat," are terms frequently used-to describe the interactions among the principal players-that scientists may never succeed in achieving their goal of sustained fusion. "It's always been a very mean field," says William Happer, a Princeton University physicist who three years ago chaired a review of ICF for the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). "Whether these guys can ever agree on the next facility or whether it will all break down into infighting, I don't know."

Livermore's Storm takes a more charitable view of his colleagues. The competition is intense, he says, because "the stakes are energy for the world." Storm concedes that scientists pursuing magnetic confinement, which uses enormous pressures and strong magnetic fields to confine the hot plasma needed to produce a sustained fusion reaction, have presented a more unified front to the world. (Indeed, last month a scientific panel from the NAS urged DOE to speed its timetable to build a $450 million Compact Ignition Tokamak facility at Princeton.) "They fight and scream behind closed doors, too," says Storm, "but then they come out agreed on the same approach. Perhaps they're a bit older and more mature. Or maybe they're just a little tired."

Some inertial fusion scientists believe that they have pulled ahead of their rivals in magnetic confinement. But most outside observers have a different view. David Bixier, of DOE's inertial-fusion division notes that the technology "would probably have some difficulty" getting funds if there were no potential military applications. Inertial-fusion scientists have also had a smaller pot to divvy up over the years than magnetic confinement, about $160 million annually compared with $350 million. "They are lean and mean," Bixler says.

If true, that fighting spirit has been honed on adversity. The heady days brought on by the energy crisis did not continue into the 1980s, as gasoline shortages were replaced by concern over the growing federal deficit. Technical problems also cropped up, and it became clear that igniting a target would require enormous amounts of energy.

Finally, experiments in the midl980s at the Nevada Test Site supposedly provided the "proof of principle" that inertial-fusion researchers had been seeking. In the tests, which were code-named Centurion-Halite, scientists from Livermore and Los Alamos used Xrays from underground nuclear explosions to ignite pea-sized targets of the hydrogen isotopes deuterium and tritium. The results were heralded in the New York Times in a March 21, 1988 front-page story pieced together from observations by those familiar with the project.

At the same time, Livermore researchers were achieving promising results with Nova, a $200 million niobium-glass laser, which is the most powerful in the world. Al-though still far from surpassing the break-even point, the 100-kilojoule machine has set records in temperature, pressure, and numbers of neutrons generated.

Seizing on those triumphs, Storm and others at Livermore decided to make their move. They told DOE officials that by 1991 they would have enough data to design and begin building a glass laser-per-haps 50 to 100 times more powerful than Nova-that could achieve ignition. "Let's plan for that," Storm recalls telling DOE in late 1987, "and if the data turn out to be green oatmeal, then we always have the option of stopping the project." DOE officials agreed with the 1991 date proposed by the Livermore group, but decided to give the other laboratories a chance to submit alternative designs.

At first it didn't look like much of a contest. The program at Los Alamos was in a shambles. The laboratory earlier had spent about $100 million on an unsuccessful carbon dioxide laser called Antares: Its long-wavelength radiation produced instabilities in the targets, which prevented them from compressing evenly. The lab is now tinkering with a krypton-fluoride laser called Aurora, but so far it has produced only 1,000-joule pulses, at least four orders of magnitude below what seemed to be needed. Aurora was "a desperation shot," admits Greg Canavan, who headed DOE's inertial-fusion division in the early 1980s and is now a physicist at Los Alamos.

At the same time, Sandia had built a huge machine, called the Particle Beam Accelerator II, to accelerate light particles such as protons and lithium ions. The machine generated pulses even more powerful than Nova's, but researchers had failed to focus the ions onto a small target, rendering it powerless to achieve fusion.

Livermore seemed ready to emerge as the clear winner in the contest for the microfusion lab. But its competitors weren't about to give up without a fight. Officials such as David Cartwright at Los Alamos and J. Pace VanDevender at Sandia reminded DOE that cracked glass and other problems had prevented Livermore's Nova from ever reaching full power The critics also pointed out that the laser was terribly expensive to build and inefficient to operate, converting into laser energy only about 1% of the electrical energy it consumed. They estimated that the upgraded version of Nova proposed for Livermore could cost as much as $20 billion; Storm and others have used a figure of not more than $1 billion.

The smaller players also excoriated the Livermore plan. One of the most vocal of these critics is Stephen Bodner, who heads a small group doing experiments at the Naval Research Laboratory. Last year Bodner told DOE officials and anyone else who would listen why he thinks "there are big problems with Livermore's glass laser approach." He freely acknowledges that he was pleased when the department shelved plans for the LMF and that the decision "probably meant a reprieve for little programs" such as his own.

Adding to the cacophony was a former Los Alamos physicist named Leonardo Mascheroni. Afterreviewing the Centurion-Halite data several years ago, he concluded that all the drivers under consideration were too small to duplicate what the nuclear explosions had done. His solution was a hydrogen-fluoride laser, which would be at least an order of magnitude more powerful than the LMF proposed by Livermore.

Although his views have won little support among scientists working in the field, Mascherom has been profiled in the national press as a courageous maverick and has won a hearing before Congress. Concedes McCrory, "He has been a real irritant."

Livermore's prospects also have been damaged by criticism from respected former insiders. Ray Kidder, a physicist at Lawrence Livermore who ran the inertial confinement program for several years before Emmett, believes that "none of these machines has any likelihood for power production." He suggests that the real reason for the intense competition is a fear by the weapons labs that the U.S. may soon further restrict or eliminate nuclear testing - the labs' main source of data and funding. "They are thrashing around trying to find something to keep themselves busy, and paid," he says.

Predictably, DOE has reacted to this outpouring of acrimony by putting off any decision. By last fall, Energy Department officials had pushed back by a year the original 1991 deadline for selecting a design; now they say they "might" consider selecting a design for the facility "sometime in the mid-1990s." There is even speculation that the facility will never be built. "The DOE is always happy to delay, especially if there is any controversy at all," says Stephen 0. Dean, who heads a profusion group called Fusion Power Associates in Gaithersburg, Md.

Princeton's Happer contends that ICF's status as a classified program contributes to the conflicts, as well as to its slow progress. And he disputes the government's argument that ICF could lead to the proliferation of hydrogen-bomb technology. He and others want to declassify the technology and open it up to international collaboration. Peer review, he says, would help resolve technical disputes, which now fester' due to restrictions on the free flow of information.

Those in the race for a laboratory microfusion facility profess to see harmony ahead. In spite of the bitter competition, Storm says he believes that ICF researchers care enough about progress in the field to unite behind a single technology. "The labs are really coming together now, more than they ever have before," says Storm. Adds Sandia's VanDevender, "The personalities are not as single-mindedly zealous as they were."

But it looks as though that newfound cooperation will be sorely tested in the competition for, the microfusion lab. Asked which lab he thinks will emerge victorious if DOE ever decides to award a design contract, Storm replies, "I think it will be a glass laser." But VanDevender demurs. "I think we're going to win."

John Horgan is editor of the "Science and the Citizen" section in Scientific American.