Unlocking the Secrets of Fusion

When finished, the NIF laser will be about as big as a football field. It will have 192 beams, all aimed to converge on a single point the size of a BB. If it works, it will produce pure fusion, Hogan concedes. But how do you fit a football field-size laser into a warhead? "You can't make the laser small enough to be a deliverable weapon," he says.

But Taylor says that's a misleading argument. The amount of energy used by the NIF will not be that great, he points out. Although it will be the most powerful ever built, the laser will only use about the amount of electricity needed to heat a few cups of coffee. The reason the NIF will be so powerful is because it will take that energy and compress it into a burst lasting three-billionths of a second.

Once scientists have seen how pure fusion works, Taylor says, it may prove practical to take other sources of energy -- like high explosives -- and devise ways for them to deliver the same amount of energy in a short, concentrated burst.

"The energy handled by those lasers is the equivalent of only a few pounds of high explosives," Taylor says.

David Dearborn, a weapons designer at Livermore, thinks Taylor is way off-base. "That's such an incredibly huge assertion that it's not anything to do with science," Dearborn says. "They have tried pure fusion in the past. It's hard. If it was easily doable with high explosives, we would have done it."

Maybe they would have, if Taylor still worked in weapons. His genius has always been redefining what others believe to be possible, and he has often been right.

It's possible the NIF laser won't springboard scientists to a pure fusion bomb. But it's still probable enough that Taylor is very worried about the prospect. If the secret to a pure fusion bomb is unlocked, he says, it will only be a matter of time before that knowledge will spread, out there for anyone who wants to put it to use.

Nuclear weapons will no longer be the sole province of countries that control supplies of plutonium and enriched uranium. Anyone will be able to jump into the game.

"With all the vigor we can muster, some of us are saying the U.S. -- our country -- led us into the nuclear age, and it's time we led the world out," Taylor says. "And we're doing the opposite. And it's getting worse and worse as time goes by, as things like the NIF get closer to completion.

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