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It's been called a modern day Moon shot, a project of revolutionary science but also the mother of all boondoggles. It's the National Ignition Facility in Livermore, California. NIF is a $5 billion taxpayer-funded super laser project. Its goal, to create nuclear fusion.
But Amy Standen, of member station KQED, reports that so far it's an elusive goal.
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AMY STANDEN, BYLINE: At first glance, NIF sounds like something out of a comic book from the 1950s.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN 1: Faster than a speeding bullet.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN 1: More powerful than a locomotive.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN 2: Look, up in the sky. It's a bird.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: It's a plane.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN 2: It's Superman...
STANDEN: It's NIF, the world's most powerful laser.
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ED MOSES: I think we are working on something far more, far out, and far cooler than anything in science-fiction or fantasy.
STANDEN: That was Ed Moses, NIF's director, showing off back in 2008. And he's not exaggerating much.
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STANDEN: The idea behind this is to direct a laser the size of a football field - 192 lasers, actually - at one tiny capsule the size of a peppercorn filled with hydrogen. It would create degrees of heat and pressure never before achieved in the lab.
MOSES: We will raise the temperature of the target to a hundred million degrees. That's higher temperature and more pressure than exists at the center of our sun.
STANDEN: So hot that the hydrogen atoms would enter into a state of controlled nuclear fusion. This is not nuclear fission, where energy is generated by splitting atoms. That happens every day in nuclear power plants. It's the opposite, fusion - smashing them together. And it's important to realize that this concept, controlled nuclear fusion, is one of the most fabled dreams in science, something that's eluded generations of physicists.
So when NIF opened, there was a lot of excitement.
ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER: So I cannot wait for this to become a reality here.
STANDEN: California's then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger was at NIF's dedication in 2009. So was George Miller, then-head of Lawrence Livermore National Lab, where NIF is based. Everyone seemed to believe that ignition - that moment the fusion chain reaction begins - was right around the corner.
GEORGE MILLER: I think we will get ignition. I think we will get ignition relatively shortly after we turn the facility on.
STANDEN: Now, fast forward three and a half years.
MOSES: We just haven't got it to burn yet.
STANDEN: That's Ed Moses last month. He's been doing a lot of these interviews lately, because October 1st, 2012 was a deadline set by the agency that oversees NIF, the National Nuclear Security Administration, for the project to have achieved fusion. But they just can't get the conditions right.
Moses doesn't put too much stock in deadlines.
We never guaranteed anything on any date. And, you know, people, you know, have to sort of get used to that. That's what great science is.
Nevertheless, the project's top brass now has some explaining to do. This month, Energy Secretary Steven Chu is required to tell Congress why NIF hasn't met its goal, despite costing taxpayers over $5 billion, so far.
For Christopher Paine, with the Natural Resources Defense Council, this will be a giant I-Told-You-So moment.
CHRISTOPHER PAINE: This project has gone on a long time. Billions have been invested, but to what end?
STANDEN: Why, in other words, are we doing this? Turns out, there are three answers to that question. This is a NIF promotional video from 2009.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN 3: NIF will explore controlled nuclear fusion to ensure global security, enable sustainable clean energy, and advance our understanding of the universe.
STANDEN: Now, let's break that down. Reason number one: clean energy; first, a very brief physics lesson. Nuclear fusion, like fission, creates energy. But it's much more powerful and it can run on hydrogen, which leaves no radioactive waste. That could mean virtually unlimited clean energy. This is a big reason scientists have been chasing this fusion dream for so long.
But critics say even if NIF works, we'd still be decades away from plugging its technology into the grid.
Reason number two: global security and weapons testing. This actually is the primary intent of NIF and it has to do with the fact that actual nuclear bomb tests are banned worldwide. With NIF, you could get around that by testing nuclear reactions inside its tiny pellet.
But it's the third reason to...
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN 3: ...advance our understanding of the universe...
STANDEN: The basic research piece, that's the goal NIF director Ed Moses is really emphasizing these days. He points to the search for a famous subatomic particle.
MOSES: You know the Higgs boson was just discovered at the LHC in CERN, right?
STANDEN: At a cost, he notes, of $10 billion.
MOSES: Was it late? Was it early? Was it on time?
STANDEN: The answer, he says, who cares? This is the stuff of grand challenge science. You can't put a timeline on it.
MOSES: It's not grand challenge science if you know the answer before you start. And this is exactly that.
STANDEN: That's the case NIF's advocates will have to make to Congress this month. And it's worked so far. After all, NIF has something for everyone: Democrats like clean energy, Republicans like weapons security. But everyone likes a breakthrough. And at NIF, that is still out of reach.
For NPR News, I'm Amy Standen in San Francisco.
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