Nuclear Science: Factors Leading to the Termination of the Antares Laser Research Program

Published by the Government Accountability Office on 1990-06-13.

Below is a raw (and likely hideous) rendition of the original report. (PDF)

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  Rctpor?,G the Chirrnan, Environment,
  Enr!r,gy , and Natural Resources
  Sukommnit,tee, Committee on
  Gover*nrnent Operations, House of

  Factors Leading to the
  Termination of the
  Antares Laser
  Research Program


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                   United States
GAO                General Accounting Office
                   Washington, D.C. 20648

                   Resources, Community, and
                   Economic Development Division


                   June 13,199O

                   The Honorable Mike Synar
                   Chairman, Environment, Energy,
                     and Natural Resources Subcommittee
                   Committee on Government Operations
                   House of Representatives

                   Dear Mr. Chairman:

                   Your May 3, 1989, letter asked us to review certain aspects concerning
                   the termination of the Antares Laser Research Program’ at the Depart-
                   ment of Energy’s (DOE) Los Alamos National Laboratory (Los Alamos),
                   in Los AIamos, New Mexico. As agreed with your office, this report pro-
                   vides information on the (1) reasons for terminating the Antares pro-
                   gram, (2) adequacy of the technical review given the Antares program
                   before its termination, and (3) preliminary results of the National Acad-
                   emy of Sciences’ (Academy) current review of DOE’S defense Inertial
                   Fusion Program, as it pertains to a laser technology similar to that used
                   in the Antares program.”

                   The Antares Laser Research Program was terminated by Los Alamos at
Results in Brief   the end of fiscal year 1986 because of a technical problem. Los Alamos
                   found that long-wavelength lasers generate electrons that preheat the
                   target containing the fuel for the fusion reaction, effectively preventing
                   fusion. DOE and Los Alamos believed the problem would have required
                   developing an impractically large and expensive laser system for effec-
                   tive use of the technology Antares represented. According to Los
                   Alamos, its efforts to overcome the technical problem were

                   Before it terminated the program, Los Alamos conducted two technical
                   evaluations and concluded that the Antares technology was not a good
                   candidate for achieving fusion. Both evaluations were reviewed-one
                   by an independent scientific panel and the other by the Academy. Both
                   reviews supported Los Alamos’ conclusion. Accordingly, we believe that
                   the program was given adequate technical review before its termination.

                   ‘Antares was a long-wavelength carbon dioxide laser, developed as part of DOE’s Inertial Fusion
                   Program, to evaluate whether such laser technology could achieve fusion. Fusion is a nuclear reaction
                   in which nuclei combine to form more massive nuclei with the simultaneous release of energy.
                   “The Antares program and the proposed hydrogen fluoride laser program reviewed by the National
                   Academy of Sciencespanel are similar in that both are based on long-wavelength laser technology.

                   Page 1                                       GAO/RCED-BO-MO       Antares   Laser Research Program

             In response to a congressional mandate, in late 1989 the Academy again
             reviewed DOE’S Inertial Fusion Program, including a laser technology
             similar to that used in Antares. The Academy’s interim report, issued in
             January 1990, again concluded that long-wavelength laser technology is
             not a viable candidate for fusion and recommended that DOE not pursue
             the technology. The Academy’s final report is due in September 1990.

             The Antares laser was built in 1983 as part of DOE’S Inertial Fusion Pro-
Background   gram-a program directed toward demonstrating the feasibility of
             achieving fusion by using intense laser or particle beams to heat and
             compress targets containing small masses of thermonuclear fuel. Inertial
             confinement fusion attempts to mimic, on a miniature scale, the physics
             of a thermonuclear explosion. The ability to create fusion in the labora-
             tory, according to the Academy, could eliminate the need for certain
             underground nuclear tests.

             After its 1983 construction, Antares competed with two other fusion
             programs to help WE determine (1) the feasibility of heating and com-
             pressing small masses of thermonuclear fuel (conditions necessary for
             fusion) and (2) the technology (i.e., the type of laser or particle beam)
             with the greatest potential for achieving fusion. One program was at the
             Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, California, and
             the other was at Sandia National Laboratory in Albuquerque, New Mex-
             ico. DOE’S goal was to determine which of the technologies being devel-
             oped by the DOE laboratories should be the basis for the future direction
             of fusion research.

             Antares was designed to evaluate long-wavelength laser technology for
             inertial confinement fusion. At the time the Antares program was initi-
             ated, Los Alamos believed that long-wavelength carbon dioxide lasers
             were a promising candidate technology for driving a fusion reaction.
             Long-wavelength carbon dioxide lasers offered several technical advan-
             tages such as laser energy efficiency, the ability to focus the laser beam,
             and relatively low estimated cost. Antares was built in 1983 and oper-
             ated through its termination at the end of fiscal year 1985 at a total cost
             of about $80 million.

             The National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 1989, and the
             conference report that accompanied the fiscal year 1989 Energy and
             Water Development Appropriation Act, directed that DOE form a panel
             to conduct a review of its Inertial Fusion Program. DOE contracted with
             the Academy to conduct that review. The Academy’s review included an

             Page 2                            GAO/RCED-90=160   Antares   Laser Research Program

                       assessment of the most promising technologies and their potential con-
                       tributions under a prohibition of underground nuclear testing (the pre-
                       liminary results of that review are discussed later in this letter).

                       After obtaining data from Antares experiments and underground
Antares Was            nuclear tests, Los Alamos reported that long-wavelength lasers generate
Terminated Becauseof   electrons that preheat the target, raise the temperature of the fuel pre-
a Technical Problem    maturely, and effectively prevent fusion. Los Alamos concluded that its
                       attempts to ameliorate the undesired effects of the electrons were
                       unsuccessful. The Director of DOE’S Office of Inertial Fusion testified in
                       May 1986, before the Subcommittee on Energy Research and Develop-
                       ment, Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources,.that, com-
                       pared to short-wavelength lasers, the long-wavelength approach would
                       create fusion only with impractically large and expensive systems. Los
                       Alamos terminated the Antares program at the end of fiscal year 1985.

                       Los Alamos had planned additional tests of the Antares laser that were
                       not conducted due to the termination of the program at the end of fiscal
                       year 1985. Los Alamos officials told us that they did conduct experi-
                       ments with Antares in the mode of operation that the canceled tests
                       were intended to evaluate, They added that their decision not to conduct
                       additional Antares experiments was based on a review of the results of
                       these experiments, the results of other experiments, and the theoretical
                       data that the tests were intended to evaluate. Los Alamos concluded
                       that even if further tests were successful, the improvements in effi-
                       ciency would have been only a fraction of that necessary to make An-
                       tares a viable candidate for achieving fusion.

                       Los Alamos conducted two internal evaluations of carbon dioxide laser
Independently          technology; both were independently reviewed. The first evaluation,
Reviewed Technical     conducted in March 1983, was intended to ascertain whether the energy
Evaluations Found      of a carbon dioxide laser can be efficiently used to achieve fusion. Los
                       Alamos concluded that carbon dioxide lasers would not meet fusion
Antares to Be          needs and have an inherent problem in that they generate unwanted
Infeasible             electrons. Furthermore, Los Alamos reported that the generation of
                       unwanted electrons would increase at the energy levels necessary to
                       achieve fusion. In addition, Los Alamos reported that its attempts to use
                       these electrons to achieve fusion had failed.

                       Los Alamos subsequently tasked an independent scientific panel to
                       review its March 1983 report. Specifically, Los Alamos asked the review

                       Page 3                            GAO/RCED-90-160   Antares   Laser Research Program

panel to provide “. . . a fresh perspective on the adequacy of the scien-’
tific data base from which we reached our decisions, insights into areas
of relevant theory or experiments overlooked, and suggestions as to the
experiments that should have the highest priority.” The review panel
consisted of representatives from Princeton University, the Universities
of Maryland and Colorado, the Mission Research Corporation, R&D
Associates, and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

In its May 1983 response, the review panel concurred with the findings
from Los Alamos’ March 1983 evaluation and also concluded that Los
Alamos’ methodology was appropriate and thorough. The panel also
offered suggestions on how to use the unwanted electrons generated by
the Antares laser to assist in creating conditions conducive to fusion and
suggested further experiments using Antares.

After incorporating the review panel’s suggestions, including conducting
certain priority Antares experiments, Los Alamos conducted a second
technical evaluation in March 1984. The purpose of the second evalua-
tion was to evaluate carbon dioxide lasers for inertial fusion. The evalu-
ation confirmed the findings in the previous internal evaluation, namely,
that carbon dioxide lasers generate unwanted electrons. Los Alamos
reported that attempts to ameliorate the effects of these electrons did
not produce obvious improvements and concluded that carbon dioxide
lasers would not meet fusion needs.

In May 1986, Los Alamos briefed the Academy on its evaluation of car-
bon dioxide lasers for fusion as part of a congressionally authorized and
presidentially directed review of DOE'S Inertial Fusion Program. The
Department of Energy National Security and Military Applications of
Nuclear Energy Authorization Act of ,k986 directed the President to
establish a group to conduct a technical review of the Inertial Fusion
Program. The President’s Science Advisor asked the Academy to carry
out the review mandated by the act. Specifically, the Academy was
asked to review the accomplishments, management, goals, and antici-
pated program contributions.

The Academy, in a March 1986 report, concurred with Los Alamos’ con-
clusions, stating that the large numbers of unwanted, or “hot,” electrons
generated by long-wavelength carbon dioxide lasers preheat the target
too much to permit the efficient heating and compression of the fuel nec-
essary to achieve fusion. The Academy also noted that although Los
Alamos made a valiant effort to use these unwanted electrons, “it was

Page 4                            GAO/RCED-90-100   Antares   Laser Research   Program
                         ultimately accepted that a successful design would be difficult if not

                         In November 1989, the Academy again reviewed DOE's Inertial Fusion
Preliminary Results of   Program, including long-wavelength laser technology similar to that rep-
the National Academy     resented by Antares as part of another review of DOE'S Inertial Fusion
of Sciences’Recent       Program. This review was mandated by DOE'S fiscal year 1989 authori-
                         zation act and the conference report that accompanied its fiscal year
Review of DOE’s          1989 appropriation act. The Academy recommended against further
Inertial Fusion          research in this area.
Program                  The Academy’s January 1990 interim report stated, in reference to a
                         long-wavelength laser technology similar to Antares, that “We share the
                         prevailing view of the ICF [inertial confinement fusion] community that
                         a retreat to longer wavelengths makes little sense. . . .” Accordingly, the
                         report recommended against research in this area. However, the execu-
                         tive director of the Academy’s review panel told us that the panel will
                         again review the available technical information related to long-wave-
                         length laser technology during the preparation of its final report. The
                         Academy’s final report is due in September 1990.

                         Los Alamos terminated the Antares laser program because it encoun-
Conclusions              tered a technical problem that it believed made the Antares technology a
                         poor candidate for achieving fusion. The two technical evaluations con-
                         ducted by Los Alamos were reviewed by independent scientific panels
                         that supported the decision to terminate Antares. This information leads
                         us to conclude that the program was given adequate technical review
                         prior to its termination. Further, the conclusions regarding long-wave-
                         length laser technology reached by the Academy in its January 1990
                         interim report also support the decision to terminate Antares.

                         In performing our review, we examined various classified and unclassi-
Scopeand                 fied studies, reports, correspondence, and congressional testimony
Methodology              related to the termination of the Antares program. We examined Los
                         Alamos’ two technical evaluations related to Antares as well as the
                         National Academy of Sciences’ report on DOE'S Inertial Fusion Program,
           Y             dated March 1986, and the preliminary report based on its most recent
                         review, dated January 1990. We interviewed program officials at DOE

                         Page 5                            GAO/RCED-90-160   Antares   Laser Research Program
headquarters and at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. We also inter-
viewed the staff director for the Academy’s 1989 review of DOE'SIner-
tial Fusion Program.

We conducted our review in accordance with generally accepted govern-
ment auditing standards. However, as requested, we did not seek formal
agency comments on this report. We did discuss the contents of this
report with WE headquarters and Los Alamos staff, who generally
agreed with the facts presented in this report. We have incorporated
their comments where appropriate.

We conducted our review between June 1989 and February 1990. As
arranged with your office, unless you publicly announce its contents
earlier, we plan no further distribution of this report until 30 days after
the date of this letter. At that time, we will send copies to the Secretary
of Energy; the Director, Office of Management and Budget; and other
interested parties. If you have any questions or concerns, please contact
me at (202) 276-1441. Major contributors to this report are listed in
appendix I.

Sincerely yours,

Victor S. Rezendes v
Director, Energy Issues

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    Page 7   GAO/RCED-90-160   Antares   Laser Research Program
 Ppe   ’

kzzr Contributors to This Report

                           Judy A. England-Joseph, Associate Director, Energy Issues
Resources,                 Richard A. Hale, Assistant Director
Community, and             Jonathan N. Kusmik, Assignment Manager
Development Division,
Washington, DC.
                           Peter Fernandez, Regional Management Representative
Denver Regional            Edward Sanchez, Evaluator-in-Charge
Office                     Pamela K. Tumler, Reports Analyst

                           Page 8                          GAO/RCED-SO-160   Antares   Laser Research Program
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