Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s National Ignition Facility celebrated its 10th anniversary of operations this week as the world’s largest and most energetic laser.

In the past decade, NIF has given scientists “unprecedented experimental access to the physics of nuclear weapons” short of resuming full-scale nuclear testing, in the words of an LLNL statement.

NIF has been supported primarily for national defense purposes, although it has created dramatic capabilities in astrophysics research and some other non-defense fields of study as well.

For a time, efforts were made to promote the promise that it could lead to civilian energy.

Those efforts proved unconvincing and undercut the program’s credibility with its defense sponsors, especially after the path to energy-output ignition experiments proved far more difficult than expected.

Today the focus is once again on national defense. In single-shot experiments, NIF creates certain physics conditions approaching those of nuclear explosions and gives weapons researchers the opportunity to verify computer simulations against actual experimental data.

“NIF’s completion represented critical and tangible proof of America’s commitment to modernizing and recapitalizing our nuclear enterprise,” said Lisa Gordon-Hagerty, a former LLNL employee who now heads the Nuclear National Security Administration, or NNSA.

“The research conducted at NIF is invaluable in establishing the effectiveness and credibility of America’s nuclear capabilities.”

The laser “stands as a shining example of what NNSA seeks to accomplish in terms of both infrastructure investment and scientific achievement, and demonstrates the U.S. commitment to remaining the world’s leader in high energy density science,” she added.

NNSA is the semi-autonomous national security arm of the U.S. Department of Energy. It supports the nuclear weapons work at LLNL and the other two nuclear weapons laboratories, Los Alamos and Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico.

Over the past decade, in more than 2,700 experiments conducted by scientists from all three of the NNSA laboratories, NIF has routinely heated and compressed matter to some of the most extreme temperatures and pressures ever obtained on Earth.

These are temperatures as high as 100 million degrees and pressures as high as 100 billion times that of the Earth’s atmosphere.

The ability to study matter under these conditions has also been valuable to astrophysicists, materials scientists and others in non-defense areas.

NIF also serves as a recruiting attraction, according to Charlie Verdon, NNSA’s deputy administrator for Defense Programs and another former LLNL employee.

“We conduct unique experiments on the NIF, which builds our intellectual capabilities through attracting, training, testing and retaining the stockpile stewards of tomorrow,” he said.

Bill Goldstein, LLNL director, said, “Since its founding, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory has built an international reputation for delivering audacious, world-changing technologies. That reputation took another step forward when NIF was dedicated in 2009.

“In its 10 years of operation, NIF has become one of the most productive, precise and reliable scientific tools ever built, a premier international center for experimental science.”