We know, the fact that the largest and most powerful laser in the world is now being used for weapons research might not, at first glance, sound like a bad thing. But it is, for two reasons: first, this laser used to be trying to figure out how to make fusion happen, and second, the weapons research does not involve turning it into a laser cannon.
Last we heard from the National Ignition Facility, it was "optimistic" that by the end of 2012, it would have managed to use its
1.21 jiggawatt 500 terawatt array of 192 separate lasers to cause a small pellet of hydrogen to implode and undergo fusion, releasing a surplus of energy in the process. The ultimate goal was to develop a prototype fusion power plant that would implode 1,000 hydrogen pellets every minute, creating a huge amount of perfectly clean energy.
But, um, it hasn't happened yet. Sadface.
A series of unexpected technical issues meant that by the end of the NIF's research campaign in September, it hadn't achieved its goal of at least getting to the break-even point for laser fusion, and it's now expected that the time that the NIF is allowed to spend on fusion research will be cut to just 50%. The other 50% will be used for weapons research, but on laser weapons. Rather, the NIF will be simulating what happens inside nuclear weapons, to improve simulations of how our stockpile of warheads is aging and making sure they all go off properly when we tell them to.
This certainly is not the end for laser fusion research: at the very least, testing at the NIF has identified several issues that need to be resolved, including loss of laser energy through scattering and asymmetric implosion of the hydrogen capsule. Unfortunately, government muckety-mucks who control the NIF's funding are becoming somewhat disillusioned with the whole fusion idea, and are mumbling things about how "the lab overemphasized and oversold the energy aspect of the NIF, at the expense of the very important and successful work it was doing in stockpile stewardship and basic science."
Look, Mr. Angry Government Man: where the heck are your priorities, anyway? The fact is, if the size and efficiency of a nuclear detonation ever becomes something that's really important, it'll be in the process of setting our civilization back hundreds (or thousands) of years. Fusion energy, on the other hand, has the potential to advance our civilization, perhaps even to the point where energy is so cheap and abundant that it'll make nuclear weapons less necessary. Imagine a world where nobody needs oil, nobody needs water, and food is cheap and plentiful, simply because we have access to as much energy as we'll ever need.
Or, you can go back to making weapons more explodey.