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George Miller
Associate Director for National Ignition Facility Programs

The National Ignition Facility Is Born

OVER the last few months, the National Ignition Facility (NIF) has begun its transition from vast construction project to the largest laser experimental facility in the world. Recent tests of the laser have demonstrated that with just the first four beams operating, NIF is already the most energetic laser ever built. When all 192 beams are blazing in 2008, NIF’s extraordinary capabilities will make possible experiments in fusion ignition, weapons physics, and basic science that many researchers have anticipated for 50 years.
With the successful commissioning of these four beams, NIF has made another, more subtle transition as well. Four years ago, the project was widely viewed as having serious difficulties. Today, those much publicized concerns are long gone. Not only is the project back on track, but the laser is also performing spectacularly.
This turnaround would not have been possible without the close working relationship of Laboratory scientists and engineers with numerous industrial partners. The challenges associated with building the world’s largest laser are enormous, particularly in managing such a large, technically complex project, developing laser and optical technologies, and constructing and aligning the superclean environmental enclosures that contain the laser beams. But over time, the team cleared one hurdle after another. The result is that many of the components in NIF’s laser system represent significant advancements of current technologies while other components are entirely new—and they all work together as designed.
Two years ago, Project Manager Ed Moses conceived of an imaginative and insightful strategy for reaching first light on NIF—commissioning one group of four beams first. We called it NIF Early Light, to show that at least one of every system in the facility could operate in accordance with full performance specifications. With its success, we would be sure that when all construction is complete, the laser will operate at the level required. As the article entitled The National Ignition Facility Comes to Life explains, NIF is already meeting performance specifications.
Much like today’s supercomputers, NIF was built to be a parallel system. A typical construction project proceeds linearly from conceptual design through final design, construction, commissioning, and turnover to the owner for operation. With NIF, however, construction and commissioning are continuing in parallel with operation of the laser for physics experiments. Although we still have another five years to go before the last optical system is installed, we are already aiming the laser at targets in the target chamber for physics experiments.
The goal for NIF, of course, is to run successful experiments. With just the first beams, NIF will begin to make significant contributions to the nation’s Stockpile Stewardship Program and to basic science in the areas of astrophysics, hydrodynamics, material science, and plasma physics. Ultimately, NIF is designed to demonstrate fusion ignition—the combining, or fusing, of two light nuclei to form a new nucleus and release energy from the nuclear reaction. NIF’s powerful array of lasers will start the fusion process. With ignition experiments, Laboratory scientists can examine the conditions associated with the inner workings of nuclear weapons and the processes that power the Sun and stars. Such experiments are a key element in the National Nuclear Security Administration’s approach to maintaining the nuclear stockpile. Ignition experiments will also enhance the ability to eventually produce fusion energy for electrical power production.
We at the Laboratory are most appreciative of those who, four years ago, had confidence in our ability to tackle the technical and management challenges that were impeding progress on NIF. They took a risk in allowing us to continue with the project. As NIF comes to life as a mature, high-performing experimental facility, we take pride in showing that their confidence was warranted.

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Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
Operated by the University of California for the U.S. Department of Energy

UCRL-52000-03-9 | September 5, 2003