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The feature article in this issue of Science & Technology Review celebrates 50 years of pioneering work on laser technology for inertial confinement fusion (ICF) and the important recent success at the National Ignition Facility (NIF). The Laser Program was launched on March 2, 1971, to consolidate ongoing laser development activities and explore the feasibility of ICF. Associate Director for Plans Carl Haussmann served as the first program leader and recruited John Emmett, who headed solid-state laser research at the Naval Research Laboratory, to lead laser development efforts as Y-Division leader in July 1972.
Y-Division took on the challenge to advance solid-state laser design in preparation for constructing Shiva, a 20-beam, high-power 10-kilojoule laser. Recognizing the strategic importance of ICF research, Atomic Energy Commission chairman James Schlesinger approved the proposal by Haussmann and future Laboratory Director John Nuckolls to build such a laser. It was an ideal, long-term undertaking for a national laboratory—requiring major scientific and engineering breakthroughs, enabling detailed exploration of high-energy-density (HED) conditions to support the weapons program, and offering the potential path to an unlimited source of energy. As the feature article describes, the 50-year history of Livermore’s Laser Program, now the NIF and Photon Science Principal Directorate, has greatly contributed to U.S. leadership in ICF research and, more generally, has made remarkable advances in solid-state laser technology and our understanding of HED science.
I started my career as a postdoctoral researcher conducting experiments on the Nova laser, NIF’s predecessor, studying instabilities that arise in shock-driven materials and other HED phenomena and learning about the role these facilities play in our national security mission. My final Nova experiment was also, sadly, Nova’s last experiment as Laboratory staff shifted attention to making NIF a reality. The bold step to construct NIF required revolutionary advances in solid-state laser and optics design and engineering. NIF’s 192-beam laser provided the enormous capability leap needed for experimental HED science to support stockpile stewardship and moved the ICF program steadily toward achieving fusion ignition and burn—a goal given a 50–50 chance of succeeding at the time.
Today, working in partnership with countless collaborators, scientists and engineers at NIF provide crucial data to sustain the nation’s nuclear weapons stockpile, make remarkable discoveries in HED science that help us understand the universe, and put us on the threshold of fusion ignition. Equally important, many outstanding young scientists test their skills and gain expertise in HED science—opportunities I had early in my career. NIF plays a crucial role in attracting, training, and challenging our scientists, helping them build knowledge and judgement to support our important responsibilities for the nation’s nuclear deterrent.
Our feature concludes with a summary of the Laboratory’s record-breaking, near-fusion-ignition experiment in August 2021: a “shot heard round the world” achievement. But that’s not the end of the story; in fact, it’s a beginning. The success at NIF and recent advances in magnetic fusion energy research prompted a March 2022 White House Summit, “Developing a Bold Decadal Vision for Commercial Fusion Energy,” in which I was honored to participate. This summit highlighted the many advances in fusion science over the past year. These advances make a vigorous approach to developing clean fusion energy a priority for the nation and one in which our Laboratory will play an exciting role.
The two highlights in this issue exemplify our Laboratory’s commitment to environmental protection. The first article describes our exacting processes to safely characterize and ship transuranic waste generated by national security programs at the Laboratory to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico. The second highlight presents an unusual application of Laboratory expertise in isotope hydrology, often applied to inform public policy on water issues. In this case, we used our capabilities to solve the mystery of local flooding at a neighboring vineyard and to identify the water’s source. While successes such as these may not always be “heard round the world,” they illustrate the breadth of our capabilities to make a difference in the world.