At the heart of the French advanced research program is a little-known project for a giant laser cannon -- not for shooting down satellites but for something potentially much more powerful. It will test theories for the next generation of civilian energy sources and French thermonuclear weapons.
The Laser Megajoule (LMJ) facility, now under construction at Le Barp, near Bordeaux, is designed to achieve nuclear fusion - the same process as the ignition of the hydrogen bomb - in laboratory conditions. It will combine 240 high-energy-density lasers as the energy source. (Mega means million and a joule is an energy unit used in physics.)
Work is on target to complete the construction by 2012. It will be the world's most powerful laser installation for any purpose.
I was granted a private tour of the sprawling facility recently and had an opportunity to question the two physicists who showed me around. This is no mere Gaullist prestige project. They are already talking of a "Nobel-worthy" creation.
For both civil and military applications, scientists have waited decades for laboratory technology to create pressures and temperatures sufficiently high to fuse hydrogen atoms. When this is achieved it will be a "transforming event" for science, says Eric Storm, liaison officer between LMJ and a somewhat smaller laser facility being built at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. "This is the holy grail."
Both labs will attempt to produce temperatures of several hundred million degree, reaching the estimated levels of heat in the sun and other stars- in effect creating a few "new stars" every day. Each burst will be monitored in a "target chamber" to help scientists probe such mysteries as supernova exploding stars and the chemical processes of the sun. "We'll finally be able to say, 'Now I understand better what's happening,'" says Storm.
A system of amplifiers and optics will shoot the laser beams down a path of 2100 feet, including multiple passes to build up power, to focus on a pellet of deuterium and tritium, causing hydrogen fusion in a few billionths of a second. This facility is the talk of the scientific community because the process has never been studied in laboratory conditions.
A friendly rivalry between the two similar laser systems has developed, and a steady exchange of non-military data has already been carried out.
The French laser unit is a key component of Simulation, the equivalent of the U.S. nuclear Stockpile Stewardship organization. Both programs are aimed at maintaining nuclear arsenals at operational levels and modernizing existing weaponry.
LMJ is civilian-operated by the Commisariat à Energie Atomique (CEA), the French Atomic Energy Commission, but one of its main missions will be to validate computer-based weapons calculations without resorting to atmospheric or underground testing - long forbidden by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The last French underground test was a controversial 1996 blast on the Mururoa Atoll in the South Pacific.
About three-quarters of the LMJ project will be devoted to military experiments, with the rest dedicated to basic physics for disciplines ranging from astrophysics to new energy sources. Laboratories throughout the world are being invited to submit projects for the LMJ and initial proposals are under consideration.
The French hope to create a global center of laser expertise that they believe will be a pivotal technology for the future. Alongside the military installation, land is being cleared for the "Route du Laser", a future Silicon Valley equivalent for laser applications. A program called Alphanov will facilitate the transfer of technology to the private sector. Three private sector companies are installed there and several others are in negotiation for space.
In addition, a few months ago the French announced the world's first graduate study program in fusion science, to be offered at several French universities and eventually at others in Europe. The degree-granting program is designed to train the next generation of nuclear science specialists and incidentally keep France on the map as a center of excellence in fusion matters.
Why does France bother? Because the country's leadership is determined to see France do more than make wine, cheese, perfume and fancy clothes. Another factor is what the French call cocorico (cock-a-doodle-do), the national pride in maintaining independence from U.S. technology, especially where there are military applications.
A massive investment program in civil nuclear power has virtually freed France of Middle East oil imports, with 80 percent of the nation's electricity now produced by 58 nuclear power stations. There have been stumbles along the way, including the shutdown and dismantling of Superphénix, the multibillion-dollar reactor that produced more plutonium than it consumed, for financial reasons. And so the tactics shift but the strategy survives.
The investment in nuclear weaponry for national defense, the "dissuasion" force to discourage foreign attacks, also continues apace. The stockpile maintenance program operates on a 15-year budget of 8 billion dollars, perhaps not excessive considering that France is battle-ready with its estimated 400 operational nuclear warheads. This arsenal makes it the third-largest nuclear power after Russia and the United States, well ahead of China and Great Britain, both of which have only an estimated 200 warheads each, according to research published recently in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy announced in March that France will reduce its number of airborne nuclear weapons by one-third, to under 300 missiles. This will leave France with half the maximum number of warheads it had during the Cold War. But Sarkozy insisted he was committed to France's nuclear deterrent as a "life-insurance policy".
Pierre Bouchet, director of the well-protected CEA site, is serene in his confidence that France is doing the right thing standing by the development of military nuclear potential. Superpower confrontation may be over but Bouchet remains firm. I asked him who the enemy is. "Today, I don't know," he said. "But can you predict what the world will be like in 20 years? In 40 years? I cannot."
However it turns out, the French intend to be ready.
In the meantime, the world is waiting for new energy sources, and France is determined to be a player there as well.
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