Jul 11th 2008

France banking on laser research

by Michael Johnson

Michael Johnson is a music critic with particular interest in piano. 

Johnson worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Moscow, Paris and London over his journalism career. He covered European technology for Business Week for five years, and served nine years as chief editor of International Management magazine and was chief editor of the French technology weekly 01 Informatique. He also spent four years as Moscow correspondent of The Associated Press. He is the author of five books.

Michael Johnson is based in Bordeaux. Besides English and French he is also fluent in Russian.

You can order Michael Johnson's most recent book, a bilingual book, French and English, with drawings by Johnson:

“Portraitures and caricatures:  Conductors, Pianist, Composers”

 here.

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.


If you wish to comment on this book review, you can do so on-line.

Should you wish to publish your own article on the Facts & Arts website, please contact us at info@factsandarts.com. Please note that Facts & Arts shares its advertising revenue with those who have contributed material and have signed an agreement with us.

 


This article is brought to you by the author who owns the copyright to the text.

Should you want to support the author’s creative work you can use the PayPal “Donate” button below.

Your donation is a transaction between you and the author. The proceeds go directly to the author’s PayPal account in full less PayPal’s commission.

Facts & Arts neither receives information about you, nor of your donation, nor does Facts & Arts receive a commission.

Facts & Arts does not pay the author, nor takes paid by the author, for the posting of the author's material on Facts & Arts. Facts & Arts finances its operations by selling advertising space.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Jul 15th 2019
".....one of the most accurate recession indicators, known as the yield curve, has recently been flashing warning signs. Every postwar recession in the US was preceded by an inversion of the yield curve, meaning that long-term interest rates had fallen below short-term interest rates, some 12 to 18 months before the outset of the economic downturn."
Jul 6th 2019
Extract: ".........growing poverty even when working, the collapse of stable and safe social identities linked to work, the increasing instability of employment security, and the rapid change of local communities due to emigration, migration, collapsing housing affordability, and redevelopment initiatives that displace communities. These provide precise and urgent electoral rallying points. They are particularly effective given that so many mainstream politicians ignore these basic grievances. In recent years, the lineup of politicians opposing the New Right – Hillary Clinton, the Remain campaign, Emmanuel Macron and Matteo Renzi – have been unwilling to even recognise these structural problems. This provided the New Right the opportunity to appear credible, simply by acknowledging them."
Jul 6th 2019
".........an openly Russophilic administration in the US may be one reason why Putin’s domestic support has been declining so sharply."
Jul 3rd 2019
"Extract: .........in a world of rapidly expanding automation potential, demographic shrinkage is largely a boon, not a threat. Our expanding ability to automate human work across all sectors – agriculture, industry, and services – makes an ever-growing workforce increasingly irrelevant to improvements in human welfare. Conversely, automation makes it impossible to achieve full employment in countries still facing rapid population growth........The greatest demographic challenges therefore lie not in countries facing population stabilization and then gradual decline, but in Africa, which still faces rapid population growth."
Jul 1st 2019
Trump’s personal style – vocal, expertise-averse, scandal-prone and driven by a focus on his partisan base – may be unusual, but aspiring Democratic presidential contenders may be making a serious error in allowing Trump’s “Wizard of Oz” act of big claims and small achievements to pass unchallenged. There is a massive gap between the pledges he made to voters and the reality of an outsider presidency thoroughly co-opted by its party. So far, the “Trump revolution” turns out to be an ordinary Republican presidency.
Jun 25th 2019
"Trump’s vindictive bluster has steamrolled economic-policy deliberations – ignoring the lessons of history, rejecting the analytics of modern economics, and undermining the institutional integrity of the policymaking process. Policy blunders of epic proportion have become the rule, not the exception. It won’t be nearly as easy to spin the looming consequences."
Jun 19th 2019
Solar energy is one of the fastest-growing energy sectors in the world, and has the great advantage of producing no carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that is raising the average surface temperature of the earth. India is now for the first time in history investing more in solar energy than in coal. There is a simple reason for this. Coal costs roughly 5 cents a kilowatt hour to generate electricity. India just let a bid for 1.2 gigawatts of solar energy and four companies scooped it up at 3.6 cents a kilowatt hour.
Jun 19th 2019
Extract: "Abe has reportedly nominated Trump for a Nobel Peace Prize – at the request of the US – for opening talks with North Korea. And he has offered to mediate in America’s dispute with Iran. (His recent visit to Tehran – where he reportedly asked Iran’s leaders, at Trump’s request, to release detained Americans – made clear that, even squeezed by sanctions, Iran has no interest in negotiating with a serial violator of signed agreements.) What Trump calls an “incredible partnership” is, in reality, a largely one-sided relationship. But, for Abe, appeasing Trump is not so much a choice as a necessity: he must prove to Japan’s people and their neighbors, particularly the Chinese, that he knows how to keep Trump on his side."
Jun 17th 2019
Extarct: "We know well the damage that corrupt leaders do to their people. We should therefore have much more to say about the quintessential corruption entailed by tolerating lies. Such tolerance allows the poison to spread through the body and soul of democracy, undermining democracy’s institutions by attacking the invisible norms and tacit understandings that support them."
Jun 11th 2019
Extract: "I noticed this dynamic firsthand a few years ago in Blagoveshchensk, on the Siberian border, just a half-mile from the Chinese town of Heihe. A century and a half ago, Blagoveshchensk was part of China. Then the Cossacks took control of it, along with many other territories in Chinese Outer Manchuria, on behalf of the Russian czar. Blagoveshchensk’s local history museum presents the development of the town after the Cossack takeover as a civilizing mission. The Russians, it seems, still view themselves as superior Westerners. As for Heihe, it got rich a quarter-century ago, after capitalizing on Russia’s post-Soviet disarray to sell cheap goods to then-starving Russians. Its own history museum presents the Cossacks as “hairy barbarians” (Lao Maozi) and lists the towns of Russia’s far east by their historical Chinese names: Blagoveshchensk is Hailanpao, Vladivostok is Haishenwai, and Sakhalin is Kuye. Local behavior reflects these perspectives. At the ferry port, the Russians sneer at the Chinese traders who bring Russian vodka and chocolate to Heihe, while the Chinese move past the Russians as if they do not exist."
Jun 5th 2019
Extract: "....the Constitution, which established the impeachment process as a check on the president’s behavior between elections, says nothing about using it only when politically convenient. Moreover, given the results in 2018, Democratic Party leaders might well discourage making the disposition of the president the key issue in the next election. Most important, a decision not to initiate an impeachment process against Trump could set a terrible precedent. If Trump isn’t impeached for his numerous criminal acts and abuses of power, would impeachment remain a viable check on the presidency? "
Jun 3rd 2019
Extracts: "Sooner or later, all smaller powers dependent on global markets would have to choose a side, unless they are somehow strong enough to withstand both American and Chinese pressure. With China and the US both demanding clarity, even economic giants like the European Union, India, and Japan would be faced with an intractable economic dilemma."
May 24th 2019
Waging a war against Iran, or even thinking of doing so, is sheer madness. Trump has thus far wisely rejected the warmonger National Security Advisor John Bolton’s outrageous advice. Waging another war in the Mideast, this time against Iran, would have not only disastrous consequences for the US but will also engulf our allies from which they would suffer incalculable human losses and destruction. Bolton was the architect behind the devastating war in Iraq in 2003, which inflicted more than 5,000 US casualties and a cost exceeding two trillion dollars, allowed Iran to entrench itself in Iraq, and gave way to the rise of ISIS.
May 24th 2019
The private Tasnim news agency reports from Iran that in a speech to thousands of university students, Iran’s clerical leader Ali Khamenei made an unusual and extraordinary criticism of president Hassan Rouhani and foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif over their handling of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or deal on limiting Iran’s nuclear enrichment program.
May 21st 2019
Extract: "Brexit, after all, is as much a Kremlin project as it is anyone else’s. Putin wants to divide Europeans, and in the UK, Brexit has succeeded in dividing Britons like nothing since the Corn Law debates almost 200 years ago. Putin wants the EU to fragment, and Brexit is causing the biggest crack yet in the bloc’s history. Putin wants to sow doubt about the legitimacy of traditional news sources; pro-Brexit media consistently promote lies as truth and inveigh against reputable papers like the Financial Times as elitist enemies of the people."
May 16th 2019
Iraq’s population when invaded was 26 million. Iran’s population today is 81 million..........Whereas Iraq’s neighbors– Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia in particular– had been mauled by Saddam and so did not strongly oppose Bush’s invasion, Shiite Iraqis, many Syrians, the Hazaras of Afghanistan, and the some 40 million Shiites of Pakistan would support Iran.
May 15th 2019
It’s time that economists, pundits, and politicians start looking holistically at life in our times, and take seriously the long-term structural changes needed to address the multiple crises of health care, despair, inequality, and stress in the US and many other countries. US citizens, in particular, should reflect on the fact that many other countries’ people are happier and less worried, and are living longer. In general, those other countries’ governments are not cutting taxes for the rich and slashing services for the rest. They are attending to the common good, instead of catering to the rich while pointing to illusory economic statistics that hide as much as they reveal.
May 8th 2019
"........Meanwhile, Trump is leaving the door open for Russia to come to his aid again in 2020. The White House and congressional Republican leaders have been blocking a bill to secure US elections against foreign attacks. And administration officials have been instructed not to raise the issue of Russian interference with the president, lest it cast a shadow on his legitimacy.  The next phase in this affair is already coming into focus. Barr, with the help of Trump’s golfing buddy Lindsey Graham, the Republican chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, is now enlisted in peddling the president’s fantasy that the Mueller investigation was a “witch hunt” orchestrated by “deep-state” supporters of Hillary Clinton. Once again, current and former FBI agents will be targeted, either because they expressed criticism of Trump or because they opened a national security investigation into a hostile power’s meddling in the US presidential election (which continued in the 2018 midterms). FBI director Christopher Wray, commenting on the Mueller report, said that the Russians are “upping their game” for 2020. "
May 7th 2019
We are witnessing the loss of biodiversity at rates never before seen in human history. Nearly a million species face extinction if we do not fundamentally change our relationship with the natural world, according to the world’s largest assessment of biodiversity.