Foolish Fusion

Explanatory science journalism is becoming rarer than a nuclear reaction

Coverage of the dedication ceremony for the National Ignition Facility, the world’s largest laser system, may have made it hard to discern how NIF’s work differs from Dr. Octopus’s fusion experiment in Spiderman II.

Media outlets skirted around substantial explanations of NIF, providing cursory information that left readers confused about how the facility will achieve its three main goals: ensuring the reliability of nuclear weapons, providing a better understanding of clean energy alternatives from fusion reactions, and further exploring astronomical and nuclear science. That’s too bad, considering the NIF’s inauguration was a good opportunity to publish some much-needed explanatory journalism about this fascinating—and controversial—project.

The New York Times’s decision to run with the headline “In Hot Pursuit of Fusion (or Folly)” is indicative of the complicated science taking place at the NIF. Unfortunately, that article, like many others, failed to explain how researchers there will try to achieve each of their specific objectives, like assessing the reliability of aging nuclear arms without underground testing. The Times’s only mention of nuclear arms experiments stated:

…NIF, if successful, would help keep the nation’s nuclear arms reliable without underground testing, would reveal the hidden life of stars and would prepare the way for radically new kinds of power plants.

That’s it. The San Francisco Chronicle wrote that one of the facility’s three main functions would be to “enable the keepers of America’s nuclear warheads to make sure that, after decades in storage, those elderly weapons are still ‘safe, secure and reliable,’” but did not explain how the facility will carry out this goal. Articles from Information Week, TG Daily and the Associated Press were also devoid of details. The AP’s omission was especially disappointing because The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times, not to mention many other local newspapers, picked up its story.

The press was comfortable explaining the facility’s tangible components, like its fusion reactor, in which scientists bombard a miniscule fleck of hydrogen with an array of lasers. The San Francisco Chronicle described the target as the size of a “BB pellet,” while the Associated Press stated that NIF’s facility is “the size of a football field,” and “consists of 192 separate laser beams, each traveling 1,000 feet in one-thousandth of a second to converge simultaneously on a target the size of a pencil eraser.”

Coverage fared much worse, however, when trying to explain the amount of energy the nuclear fusion reactor will potentially produce. In particular, the Technology blog at the LA Times reported:

When the system goes online in two to three years, the nearly 200 lasers will focus all their power inward at a tiny 2-millimeter ball of frozen hydrogen gas, zapping it with 60 times more energy than any laser system that’s come before. How much juice is that? Try 2 million joules.

How much juice is that?

“It’s never been done before under controlled conditions,” wrote the lab’s Bob Hirschfeld in an e-mail. “Just in nuclear weapons and in stars.”

Wait, what? An article in The Economist clarifies the issue, saying that the facility could produce power of “500 trillion watts, about 3,000 times the average electricity consumption of the whole of planet Earth.” That fact is not only illustrative, but also a clear connection to one of the purposes of NIF: exploring clean, limitless energy (a byproduct of nuclear fusion). The Economist also sheds a bit of light on the never-answered question of how exactly NIF will test nuclear weapons:

Instead of weapons development, nuclear-weapons scientists are now engaged in a programme intended to ensure that the country’s existing warheads will continue to function predictably as they age. This work uses “subcritical” tests that do not involve full nuclear detonations, and computer simulations of how a weapon would explode.

Admittedly, it is much easier to criticize explanatory journalism than to write it. But there are alternatives for press outlets. Wired’s Science blog bypassed posting an article, opting to explain the new facility through a video podcast which was both enlightening and entertaining. Perhaps more journalists should consider using multimedia to teach readers about seemingly indescribable projects like NIF.

It’s a shame that readers without access to multimedia like Wired’s podcast may continue to think that the NIF is going to create, in the words of Dr. Octopus, the power of the sun in the palm of their hands.

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Sanhita Reddy is a former Observatory intern currently living in Brazil on a Fulbright scholarship, studying the media sources people use to find health information.