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Ira Flatow on Science: 'Super Laser' Nuke Testing

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Ira Flatow on Science: 'Super Laser' Nuke Testing

Science

Ira Flatow on Science: 'Super Laser' Nuke Testing

Ira Flatow on Science: 'Super Laser' Nuke Testing

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The U.S. government plans to develop a "super laser" that would simulate a small nuclear explosion — making conventional testing of nuclear warheads all but obsolete.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

If you think those laser light swords in "Star Wars" are impressive, wait till you hear this: The US government is constructing a superlaser 10 times more powerful with 40 times the energy of any previous laser. The idea is to duplicate the tremendous heat inside the sun and create a mini nuclear explosion.

Here with is is Ira Flatow. He's host of NPR's "Science Friday" and a regular Thursday contributor to DAY TO DAY.

Ira, what are they going to do with this souped-up laser?

IRA FLATOW (Host, "Science Friday"): Well, Alex, the idea here is to be able to duplicate the conditions of nuclear explosion so that you don't have to actually explode a nuclear bomb. The Department of Defense has a large aging population of nuclear warheads. They have thousands of them, and the only way to see if they remain viable is to set one off every now and then, sort of like testing your ammunition to see if it still shoots.

CHADWICK: Yeah.

FLATOW: But exploding nuclear bombs is expensive, it's dirty, and these days it's not very politically correct, even if you do it underground.

CHADWICK: There's a treaty that says we're not going to do this anymore.

FLATOW: That's right. So the government is constructing this enormous laser beam that will heat up a tiny hydrogen pellet the size of a pencil eraser, heating it so hot that nuclear fusion will occur. They'll have sort of a mini hydrogen bomb that will explode in a controlled way inside this laboratory so you don't have to explode the big bomb.

CHADWICK: Aha. And this would be safe, really, setting off even one the size of an eraser, so they don't have to test the big one?

FLATOW: Yeah. This is really, really, really tiny, and just to see how nuclear explosions are occurring. And what's really ironic about this is that the whole idea of using a superlaser beam, which is actually split up into almost 200 smaller laser beams that are focused on the pellet from all sides, this idea is decades old and it goes back to the mid-1970s, and I remember visiting the National Ignition Facility at the Lawrence Livermore Laboratories back then when the first experiments were under way, and at that time, they were building supposedly this superlaser not to test bombs but ostensibly to see whether they could use this technology for peaceful purposes, sort of a fusion nuclear power plant--remember after the oil embargo. And this all stemmed from the oil shortage of the '70s.

CHADWICK: Well, what happened to the idea? You know, gas is getting pretty expensive now.

FLATOW: Yeah. And you don't see any laser fusion reactors around today, do you? The idea never really went very far. It was an expensive science project that was eventually killed by the Reagan White House.

CHADWICK: But reborn now somehow as a weapons-testing technology?

FLATOW: You know, it's funny how expensive weapons projects seem to get funded but not expensive science projects? Remember the defunct supercollider? Well, yes, now the idea is gaining steam and so is the price tag, by the way, estimated to be perhaps $5 billion. On the other hand, if the Pentagon is going to maintain its aging arsenal of nuclear warheads, it is a price that Congress and the president seem to be willing to pay. Four of these 192 laser beams are operating and we have a ways to go. The rest are scheduled to be online and shooting those highly concentrated photons by 2008.

CHADWICK: Ira Flatow, host of "Science Friday" and regular Thursday contributor to DAY TO DAY.

Thank you again, Ira.

FLATOW: You're welcome, Alex.

(Soundbite of music)

CHADWICK: And DAY TO DAY continues just ahead.

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