The Trump Administration would like to cut the budget of the National Ignition Facility by 14 percent, from this year’s $344 million to $296 million in the coming year, according to news reports.
The cut, if realized in the actual budgets that emerge in the coming months, would be part of the Administration’s “shift in priorities away from the pursuit of fusion ignition,” according to a news summary from the American Institute of Physics.
A spokesperson from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, where the National Ignition Facility (NIF) is located, declined comment.
NIF is a key part of the U.S. effort to understand nuclear weapons physics in the absence of full-scale nuclear testing as it works to maintain its aging nuclear stockpile and the infrastructure that supports it.
The facility comes closer to recreating the extreme temperatures and pressures of a nuclear explosion than other scientific instruments do.
In the implosion-explosion sequence of a laser driven target, ignition begins when the center of a rapidly compressing laser target becomes a “hotspot” of self-sustaining thermonuclear reactions that produces more energy than is lost from the system.
NIF has not yet demonstrated ignition despite intense efforts to do so. Years ago, when the system was still being built, Laboratory management was optimistic that it would be possible, but was careful not to guarantee success.
It stressed the facility’s value to the weapons program even without ignition -- a value that is being realized with NIF’s ability to advance the physics of extreme conditions often referred to as "high energy density."
Not achieving ignition has been an embarrassment not so much because the science was more difficult than predicted -- although it has been – but because, to critics, it seemed to symbolize a tendency to over-promise and under-deliver in science today.
The federal administration asked for level funding of $80 million for another major laser facility that pursues some of the same goals as NIF, the University of Rochester’s Omega laser. For Rochester supporters, that's a step up from last year, when the Administration tried to zero out Omega’s budget.
It proposes to increase the budget for the Z Pulsed Power Facility at Sandia National Laboratory from $63 million to $67 million.
While the administration would like to cut NIF’s funding, it hopes to increase the overall budget of the National Nuclear Security Administration by 8 percent, the American Institute of Physics news summary said.
Lisa Gordon-Hagerty, administrator of NNSA and a former employee at LLNL, testified in Congress in favor of the boost, particularly a $16.5 billion request that would support modernization of the nuclear stockpile and its aging infrastructure.
This is “a necessary investment when you consider the stakes,” she said.
“Russia and China are pursuing completely new nuclear capabilities, North Korea’s intentions remain unclear; we face the most complex and demanding global security environments since the end of the Cold War.”