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DOE Fusion Managers and Science: A Personal Reaction

by Marvin M. Mueller, Ph.D. (LANL, Retired)
June 14, 1997

These comments were specifically triggered by the reported attempt by Victor Reis (Assistant Secretary for Defense Programs, DOE) to get Paul Robinson, the director of Sandia National Laboratory, removed from office for being lukewarm in his comments on the National Ignition Facility (NIF) and by the letter of June 2 from David Crandall (Director, NIF Office, DOE) to the editor of the Albuquerque Tribune condemning, in very strong language, the article by Lawrence Spohn (May 29, 1997) concerning NIF and its critics. More generally, my reaction stems from a long history in the DOE fusion programs of stifling and squelching dissent from scientists who don't hew to the DOE's "party line."

These strong-arm tactics by management smack more of dictatorial regimes than a society which values freedom of speech and press. Even worse, they are antithetical to the fundamental modus operandi of science itself, without which science cannot function as science: the free and open airing of all opinions, empirical data, hypotheses, and theories. I accuse the DOE fusion managers of behavior in defending NIF somewhat reminiscent of that of the Roman Church and its Inquisition in the seventeenth century in defending geocentrism or that of Stalinist Russia in defending Lysenkoism. Both their actions and their words bespeak a fear of debate and open inquiry, a fear that new reviews or new data might upset the comfortable status quo and prove threatening, or at least embarrassing, to those in power. It is my long-considered opinion that it was such fears of new data which were primarily responsible for two hugely expensive and scientifically unwarranted-- even tragic-- DOE management fiascoes: the shutdown and hurried destruction of the LANL Antares Fusion Facility in 1986 and the abrupt cessation of the underground nuclear testing of microfusion implosion capsules (the Halite-Centurion Program) in 1990.

Skepticism and unfettered, unrelenting, open debate are the very lifeblood of science, and have been since its inception four centuries ago. For it was in opposition to doctrinaire, authoritarian thinking and thought control by both church and state that science-- then called "natural philosophy"-- started developing in the first place. Yet Copernicus thought it necessary to delay publication of his radical theory until after his death, and Galileo was forced to recant his heresy in his old age. Nevertheless, despite such an inhospitable climate, science managed to be born and eventually thrive.

Four centuries later, vigilance is still required to keep science alive and healthy in a climate remaining, by and large, inamicable to it. I strongly agree with the outstanding science writer, Timothy Ferris, who recently wrote: "Though science is stronger today than when Galileo knelt before the Inquisition, it remains a minority habit of mind, and its future is very much in doubt." Science could all too easily be crushed in the narrowing gap between the authoritarianism of large, politically dominated institutions and the scientific illiteracy (cum hostile irrationalism) of the general population. In the long view of history, the last four centuries of science could conceivably turn out to have been just another "flash-in-the-pan"-- but what a flash even so!

I would like to plead for some humility to be shown on both sides of the NIF controversy, but it seems that the DOE needs it more. This issue concerns research at the frontier of human knowledge and understanding; inherently, therefore, considerable uncertainty in what will come out of it is inescapable. In light of the ongoing and pending lawsuits charging that the panel reviews of both the NIF proposal and several alternative fusion approaches have not only been closed to the public but also rigged (through panel selection) to produce conclusions that the DOE wanted, the DOE should unhesitatingly agree to submit the fusion proposals to an outside panel review done as openly as possible with as many panel members as possible independent of the DOE and its contractor laboratories. Under such circumstances, for them to oppose having the claims and counter-claims scrutinized by an outside, independent panel will mean putting both the DOE and the National Academy of Sciences under a dark miasma of public concern about what they're so afraid of. With billions of dollars about to be committed to NIF, can the nation risk settling for less?

In any case, the nation cannot afford to concentrate primarily on one risky approach-- putting all our eggs into a glass basket-- when another approach looks promising and could, at the least, provide a valuable insurance policy against the failure of the glass-laser approach. Moreover, and in total contradistinction to NIF, the highly efficient hydrogen-fluoride chemical laser approach we are proposing has the extremely important potential of eventually leading to affordable fusion energy from power plants.

Finally, I would like to make it clear that I agree with those, like Ray Kidder, who support the idea behind NIF because of the contribution it could make--even if it fails to achieve fusion ignition-- to basic plasma physics. As one for whom astrophysics has been something of an armchair hobby for the five decades of my adult life, I am keenly aware of its important basic implications for astrophysics-- particularly plasma opacities and the theories of stellar death. However, I believe what Ray Kidder and others are overlooking is that there is a strong possibility-- which needs to be subjected to a very detailed, high-level review-- that the hydrogen- fluoride chemical laser approach could do the job better, more affordably, and with a far better chance of achieving fusion ignition to boot. The problem is not with the idea of building a national ignition facility of some kind, but rather with the way it has been hyped and oversold for its weapons-research applications in the absence of an independent and thorough review.

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