Laser Fusion: Image and Reality of a Military Program

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Laser Fusion: Image and Reality of a Military Program

by Ross Flewelling

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 13, No. 4, July/August 1981, p. 28–31

Laser-driven fusion is one approach to a long term solution to the world’s energy supply problems, based on a virtually inexhaustible fuel source, deuterium from water. —C. Martin Stickley, Physics Today, May 1978

A laser fusion apparatus. . . [will give] us a capability of exceeding by many orders of magnitude any other weapons simulation facility which exists or is projected for the 1980’s. —C. Martin Stickley, Congressional hearing for FY78

Advocates of any new military technology must sell their idea to a reluctant public which must bear its cost and consequence, an accountable Congress which must authorize its expense, and the scientists and technicians whose lives will be involved in its development. Laser fusion is such a technology. Before scientists and the public this billion dollar project is sold as a watershed of scientific exploration with the potential of solving the world’s energy problems. It is sold to Congress as a vast new energy program when such is the fad in Washington. But laser fusion has always been, and remains, primarily a military program. Such subterfuge is part of what scientific and technological development is all about in the United States.

Its Military Mission

The first demonstration of an artificial fusion reaction was the detonation of the Super (hydrogen) bomb, Mike I, in 1952 on the island of Elugelab in the South Pacific Eniwetok Atoll. Edward Teller, Enrico Fermi and James Tuck were among the leading scientists at Los Alamos who were soon thinking of a controlled fusion machine. To begin the study, Tuck, an Englishman, usurped funds from another program at M.I.T. housed in the Hood Building. The scuttlebutt was that Tuck was robbing Hood: the secret project to develop a controlled fusion reactor was thus named Project Sherwood.

Almost immediately after the invention of the laser in 1960, the first conception of laser-induced fusion arose at Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore Laboratories. A secret military program began at the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory in 1963, with all information relevant to the project classified. By 1968 it became clear that Soviet and French laser research was more vigorous and more advanced than that in the United States. As a response, the U.S. increased funding by a factor of ten, and by 1971 certain aspects of laser fusion science and technology were declassified to spur research.

By 1976 the Energy Research and Development Administration (ERDA; now the Department of Energy) listed for Congress the applications of laser fusion “in the expected order of possible accomplishment”:

X-ray and neutron sources;
Weapons effects, vulnerability, and hardening; Radiography for nuclear weapon and component designs;
Laboratory weapon development tools;
Materials testing for thermonuclear power systems;
Civilian power materials production;
Military energy sources;
Civilian electrical power production.1

The following year, applications to nuclear weapons were made quite explicit with the listing of four general military applications:

Provide support for underground tests,
Potential for large-scale weapon effects simulation,
Allows modeling of atmospheric nuclear explosions,
Provides unique capability for modeling of nuclear weapons physics.2

Laser fusion is, and will increasingly become, essential to national security interests, for laser fusion studies provide the best model of X-ray and neutron spectra like those characteristic of thermonuclear weapons and they provide a unique environment in which to study the effects of weapon-like temperatures and densities on materials and components. Indeed, in the event of a comprehensive test ban treaty, laser fusion could provide the only means for testing new science and technology relating to thermonuclear explosions. As ERDA officials described it,

An inertial confinement fusion device would reproduce on a laboratory scale much of the fundamental physics and if sufficiently large, many of the radiation data for weapons technology development … Laser development for fusion research has recently reached the power levels and control of beam-target inter-actions needed to produce data that assist weapons design activities. 3

Fusion Technology

In the process of fission, large nuclei such as uranium and plutonium are split apart to release the tremendous energy stored in the nuclear mass. Fission is thus an energy source for nuclear reactors, for the earliest nuclear weapons, and for the triggers of present thermo-nuclear (fusion) weapons. In fusion, small nuclei like hydrogen, helium, and their isotopes, are fused into larger structures, also thereby releasing energy—in fact, releasing tremendously more energy than possible from fission. Fusion provides the source of energy for the Sun and also for thermonuclear weapons. There is now a massive program underway to harness fusion energy in a controlled reactor.

Two basic methods for controlling fusion reactions are currently being pursued. One is to contain the enormous energy produced in specially designed magnetic fields—a magnetic bottle. The other is to explode minute pellets of light elements (mainly deuterium) with a brief, powerful pulse of energy. This later method, called “inertial confinement fusion,” uses lasers or particle beams to deliver sufficient energy into a microscopic volume to ignite the fusion reaction. (The accompanying article is relevant to either the laser or particle beam ignition schemes.)

Because deuterium is a favored fusion fuel, and since it is extractable from water, the notion that fusion energy is based on a virtually inexhaustible fuel source—sea wate—is often put forth. This assessment is only partially true, and it further diverts attention from many other crucial features of fusion power. The cost of extracting deuterium from water must be considered, and tritium will also be necesary for the fusion fuel. Tritium, however, is not naturally available. It can be produced from lithium and a neutron source, such as the fusion reactor itself, but lithium is in limited supply. Furthermore, the technological feasibility of a con-trolled fusion reaction has yet to be demonstrated, and if it is, massive reactors exceeding the size, complexity, and costs of present fission reactors will be required. A fusion reactor will generate huge fluxes of energetic neutrons which will produce radioactive debris, create structural weakening of reactor components, and provide a means for production of weapons-grade fissionable material. Overall, the cost of electricity from a fusion reactor will probably be at least as expensive as electricity from present fission power plants. (For one critical review of fusion power see J. Holdren, Science, April 14, 1978, p. 168.) Fusion power is not a panacea solution to the energy predicament.

This same technology has important military applications. Laser and particle beam apparatus, used to ignite the nuclear fuel, are already useful to the military as weapons themselves. Furthermore, miniature fusion explosions will emit characteristic X-ray and neutron fluxes which can be used for testing thermonuclear explosions on materials and on electrical and mechanical systems. This military capability will be realized long before a commerical power plant would be practicable. Indeed, glass laser systems such as the enormous SHIVA/NOVA complex at the Lawrence Livermore weapons laboratory are now known to be technologically infeasible as the basis for commercial energy production.

Its Public Image

Unclassified research sponsored by the Department of Energy finds its science workers through open advertising and its results are published in accessible journals. For laser fusion, one might expect to find articles on the subject in such journals as Laser Focus, the general trade magazine on lasers, or The Atom, the laboratory magazine of the Los Alamos weapons laboratory where much of the work is done. One might also look for information on the subject in journals whose principle subscribers are practicing physicists, engineers, and technically educated readers—in The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, for instance, or Science, or Scientific American, or Nature, or New Scientist. Indeed, if one were reading all of these journals beginning at the time when laser fusion research was declassified, one would have found in a decade of reading some twenty articles of three or more pages on the technology of laser fusion. Eighty percent of these articles made some mention of the applications of laser fusion technology, and in all, 32 different uses were named. Yet for all this discussion of a technology that had been created by the military and directed from its earliest days toward military ends, not one reference can be found in any of these articles as to the military applications of laser fusion.

Science workers and technically educated readers alike could peruse the journals to inform themselves on this new technology and conclude that the hundreds of millions in tax dollars would be peacefully and wisely spent. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists (October, 1971) hailed laser fusion as “an almost ideal answer to our future energy needs,” while Fortune (May, 1974) described it as “the ultimate solution to the world’s energy problems.” Science (November 1, 1974) touted it as a “virtually inexhaustible energy source, for which the fuels are of negligible cost (compared to fossil fuels), are universally available, and are obtainable with small environmental impact,” and further that laser fusion “is almost ideally compatible with the crucial issue of achieving a stable physical and political environment.” More recently, two Los Alamos Laboratory scientists presented a paper at the 1980 American Association for the Advancement of Science Annual Meeting entitled, “Laser Fusion—A Potential Inexhaustible Energy Source.”

Science workers who were reluctant to get involved with war-related research could read the professional literature and come away from it secure that laser fusion was non-bellicose, non-polluting and much applauded endeavor. Similarly, interested taxpayers could feel comforted that a panacea for the world energy crisis had at last been found and the DOE was putting its money in the right place. For all anyone knew, the military had no part in the past or future of laser fusion.

Selling Militarism

The military mission of laser fusion is rarely apparent in public and professional discussions of the technology. But is this deception? After all, the military applications were discussed in Congressional hearings. But congressional hearings are not the source of most people’s public or scientific information, nor therefore do they provide a basis for public discussions. Further-more, in at least one instance, military representatives were found trying to sell laser fusion to Congress as an energy program. Testifying before the House Appropriations Committee in 1974, two representatives from the Department of Military Application responded to questions from Congressman Davis:

Mr. Davis. The other day in our discussions here, I believe we were told that up until this point, at least, the laser program had been entirely military oriented.
General Graves. Yes.
Mr. Davis. Then your justification refers to continuing emphasis on civilian power applications. How do you reconcile that? …
General Graves. The entire program had been funded as a military program up through the current year, and that was $34 million in fiscal year 1974 …. The program is going from $34 to $44 million; $2 million of that is considered escalation on the $34 million, and $8 million is considered growth beyond escalation, and that is put on the civilian side ….
Mr. Greer. You will not find this split between military and civilian in the budget. It will come out of one program …. We carry the whole $44 million line as an energy program in the table we provided the committee because of its potential future application. [emphasis added]4

The new energy side of laser fusion amounted to only 180Jo of the total budget, yet the entire program was carried as an energy item. In subsequent years, funds have been requested on intermingled energy and military goals; but military goals are the short-term reality, while energy goals remain a distant and unlikely possibility.

In 1975, a “News and Comment” item appeared in Science discussing the military side of laser fusion. In it, Major General Edward Giller (then chief of national security for ERDA) revealed what was really going on with laser fusion:

People go around town saying this is an energy program, but that’s something that came along only after energy research got popular …. What we’re doing now, developing basic laser technology, is equally applicable to military and civilian aspects. But really, this is a military program and it always has been … 5

Military technologies are typically researched and developed in only a few weapons laboratories with close connections to large corporations. At present, about 80% of laser fusion research is performed at three weapons laboratories (the two government labs -Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory and Lawrence Livermore Laboratory -and the private Sandia Laboratory, an ATT&T subsidiary). About 10% is done by one private corporation, KMS Fusion, and the rest is done at other federal labs and at the University of Rochester. The research is highly centralized and closely tied to corporate interests. In Congressional hearings one can sometimes learn of the happy union between corporation executives and the generals:

Senator Montoya. Don’t you feel sort of wedded to those who have contracts with you because of expertise which they are acquiring on a year-by-year basis?
General Graves. We certainly do feel that as long as they are doing good work, we will be continuing that work.
Senator Montoya. Have you terminated any contracts because of lack of production? General Graves.
No; we have not.

Such centralization of research constrains public access and delimits what information about the technology and its applications will be disseminated. This too is part of the selling of militarism.

Between the Broken Glass

Considering that the manifold uses of laser fusion have been largely known ever since the subject was declassified in 1971, the merchants of this technology cannot be simply accused of keeping the truth secret. It is clear, though, that neither have they made any effort to provide the general public or the scientific reader with sufficient information for making an intelligent decision about the worthiness of a large-scale laser fusion pro-gram. Information that might have been published in Science or Laser Focus or Scientific American, detailing the military, as well as the civilian, applications of laser fusion, is instead published only in the Congressional Record. A public document, yes, but hardly the source to which one would expect to turn for an understanding of the principles and applications of laser fusion.

The opening quotations by laser fusion advocate Martin Stickley are a paradigm of the situation: before the public he tells one story, while speaking to those in power he tells quite a different story. What does this discrepancy between the public image of laser fusion and the actual planned application of the technology really signify? There is every reason to believe that, as with laser fusion, the public image of science and tech-nology will be manipulated to serve the interests of military and corporate eilites, and not necessarily reflect the real agenda nor the real interests being served. In order to challenge such realities, the image must be shattered.


As this article is going to press, Science (May 1, 1981) reports that Congress has, for the first time, decreased funding for laser fusion, apparently because it has failed to achieve its stated goals. Science verifies that military applications are the underpinning of the project, and that laser fusion technology is ill-suited for commercial power production. Notably, unlike previous years, the principal hearing this year was entirely classified with no part open to the public. In this author’s opinion the funding was cut this year because it is now clear to Congress that the glass SHIV A/NOVA laser complex at Livermore has reduced capability of igniting a fusion reaction, and therefore is more limited in its ability to model thermonuclear explosions for military studies. (However, a top Livermore official reviewing this article emphasized that the Livermore program is going strong, that it has recently achieved new breakthroughs that in-validate this later assessment, but the explanation for this is classified.) Its lack of suitability for commercial energy production has long been known. However, particle beams and other types of laser systems are still being pursued for military application.

Ross Flewelling is a member of Science for the People, and works in the departments of Physics and Biophyisics at the University of California, Berkeley.

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