More than 3,500 people, including U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, celebrated the completion of the National Ignition Facility, a stadium-sized facility capable of creating conditions similar to those that exist only in the cores of stars and inside nuclear weapons.
Located in Livermore, Calif., the NIF houses 192 giant lasers, which are expected to all be fully operational in 2010. Once ready, the lasers will be able to focus the full power of their beams of light on a single target the size of a pencil eraser, generating a huge amount of energy known as fusion ignition.
However, government officials concede that getting the lasers up to full power could prove daunting, and perhaps impossible, The New York Times reported. For that reason, skeptics have criticized the effort as squandering money at a time when the nation is facing economic hardships. Just operating the NIF will cost $140 million a year.
The purpose of the NIF is to ensure the reliability of the nation's aging nuclear weapons without having to conduct underground testing. The United States has not deployed a new nuclear weapon in more than 20 years and has not conducted underground testing since 1992, according to the government.
Besides weapons testing, the NIF may help advance fusion energy technology for use in power generation that would make the United States less dependent on foreign oil. In addition, the experiments at the facility could help scientists better understand the makeup of stars and giant planets within and outside our solar system.
As the scientists ramp up power, the NIF has already produced historic advances. For example, the facility became the first fusion laser to break the megajoule barrier by delivering 1.1 million joules of ultraviolet energy to the center of its target. A megajoule is a measure of energy equivalent to that consumed by 10,000 100-watt light bulbs in one second.
The Department of Energy announced in March the certification of the completion of the $3.5 billion NIF. "Completion of the National Ignition Facility is a true milestone that will make America safer and more energy independent by opening new avenues of scientific advancement and discovery," Thomas D'Agostino, administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration, said at the time.