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 9th 2020
EXTRACT: "The ideas behind MMT [=Modern monetary theory] were mainly developed in the 1970s, notably by Warren Mosler, an American investment fund manager, who is also credited with doing much to popularise it. However, there are many threads that can be traced further back, for instance to an early 20th-century group called the chartalists, who were interested in explaining why currencies had value. These days, prominent supporters of MMT include L Randall Wray, who teaches regular courses on the theory at Bard college in Hudson, New York state. Another academic, Stephanie Kelton, has gained the ear of politicians such as Bernie Sanders and, more recently, Democrat US presidential candidate Joe Biden, providing theoretical justification for expanding government spending."
Jul 7th 2020
EXTRACT: "So we are left with herd immunity and viable treatments as the world’s only realistic near term solution. Sweden has been roundly criticized and shunned by its neighbors for embracing herd immunity at the outset of the pandemic. It has paid a price for having done so based on accelerated infection and death rates. But while the jury will remain out for some time to come about the wisdom of having done so, Sweden may prove to have been ahead of the curve in its approach. Herd immunity is an option that should be seriously considered by the world’s governments, for a safe and effective vaccine could be many years away, and may not be achieved at all. PICTURE: Daniel Wagner.
Jul 5th 2020
EXTRACT: "The war on Yemen begun in 2015 by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates has been a failure militarily and a vast drain on resources that, in the age of Covid-19, neither country can any longer afford. Not only has the war been Saudi Arabia’s Vietnam, it has inflicted untold human damage on Yemenis. UNICEF has a new report out warning that millions of Yemeni children are on the brink of starvation. Yemen, with a population of about 28 million (think Texas), is one of the poorest countries in the world. Saudi Arabia, with a citizen population of some 21 million, is one of the richest. The United Arab Emirates, with a citizen population of a little over 1 million, is likewise very rich. Both have waged a high-tech air war on the indigenous Yemeni Houthis, but in the past year have pitched their Sunni proxies against one another."
Jun 25th 2020
EXTRACT: "The facts are clear: the wealthiest 0.54%, about 40 million people, are responsible for 14% of lifestyle-related greenhouse gas emissions, while the bottom 50% of income earners, almost 4 billion people, only emit around 10%. The world’s top 10% income earners are responsible for at least 25% and up to 43% of our environmental impact. Most people living in developed countries would fit into this category, meaning you don’t have to consider yourself rich in order to be globally affluent. Even many poorer people in wealthy countries have a disproportionately large and unsustainable resource footprint compared to the global average."
Jun 24th 2020
EXTRACT: "To be sure, the American Dream was always more aspiration than reality. Economic, social, and intergenerational mobility have always fallen short of what the myth of the self-made man or woman would lead one to expect. But with social mobility now declining as inequality rises, today’s young people are right to be angry."
Jun 19th 2020
EXTRACT: "There is only one way to repair America’s reputation, regain the trust of allies, and ensure that the US can act as an effective counterweight to China: address the root causes of the cracks that Trump’s disastrous presidency has exposed and widened. This is in line with the vision advanced in 2011 by two military strategists, Captain Wayne Porter and Colonel Mark Mykleby, using the pseudonym “Mr. Y.” Porter and Mykleby argued that national security depends not only on the capacity to respond to threats from foreign powers, but also – and perhaps more important – on the “application of credible influence and strength.” That influence, in turn, depends on America’s success in providing a “pathway of promise” for US citizens – and a model for the world."
Jun 14th 2020
EXTRACT: "The most critical question then is not how far Trump will go to promote his treasonous agenda, but for how long Republican leaders will silently accept and subserviently enable Trump to destroy the basic moral tenets and values on which this Union was founded, and which they swore to uphold and protect...............Of course, shame on us if we continue to be surprised by Republicans’ continuing silence, because as we all know, even when presented with overwhelming evidence that Trump committed crimes against the American people, Trump’s Republican stooges in the Senate exonerated him following impeachment almost unanimously...................The Republican leadership, to be sure, has made its bed. It has committed moral suicide. History will judge them harshly for their treason and betrayal of the nation, including all of those who have lived and died throughout our history to foster and protect our safety, integrity, and freedom."
Jun 9th 2020
EXTRACT: " Governments can do nothing about the quotidian offenses of living as a black person in America – the empty taxis that refuse to stop, being mistaken for employees in supermarkets, the myriad intentional and unintentional insults. Many now in the streets won’t be satisfied unless the result of this national spasm is improved schools, health care, and job opportunities for minorities – a fair shake for black people. What will happen when America once again falls short of honoring its professed values?."
Jun 8th 2020
EXTRACT: "It should be apparent to most observers of international relations that the Chinese government wants the world to play by its own set of rules. Beijing appears to believe that China’s rise and its assumption of global leadership positions are an inevitable extension of earlier periods in its history, when it was the world’s most powerful country. This is often at odds with the global norms that have been established – with China’s participation, it is worth adding – since the 1940s. While this is clearly the Chinese century, few outside of China would agree that Beijing’s global leadership is either inevitable or necessarily desired – certainly not on the Chinese government’s terms."
Jun 4th 2020
EXTRACT: "Many Americans are clearly horrified by their president’s crass and incendiary words. But will their disapproval be offset by anxiety about violent social unrest? Will age-old racial prejudices, often unspoken, or even acknowledged, still make them vote for the false security of a coarse white bully?  Much will depend on how hot this summer gets. If people think rationally in November, it is hard to imagine that enough of them would vote to keep this appalling administration in power for another four years. But fear is reason’s worst enemy."
Jun 2nd 2020
EXTRACT: "For starters, many Americans have accepted that they live in a winner-takes-all society of deepening inequality. While the wealth and incomes of those at the very top continue to grow, tens of millions of Americans struggle to afford health care, childcare, and other basic goods. This story has been told many times over. But what often goes unremarked is that the responsibility for managing the social costs of this system has been offloaded onto the police."
May 27th 2020
EXTRACT: "Obamagate is the latest conspiracy theory to be pushed by US president, Donald Trump. It started on the morning of May 10, when Trump retweeted the word “OBAMAGATE!” By the next day, the Obamagate hashtag had accrued over two million tweets and another four million by the end of the week. Trump has repeatedly reused the slogan on his Twitter feed since and it has been promoted by right-wing influencers including Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity and many others....You are not alone if you’re confused by what Obamagate actually is or why Trump is tweeting about it."
May 23rd 2020
EXTRACT: "Not all aspects of our near and medium-term future can be foreseen at this juncture of the Covid-19 pandemic, but we now know enough to make some hypotheses about what is likely to change, based on what has already changed. The future is sure to look very different than it did before this decade began, regardless of whether a vaccine is found. If a vaccine is found, it is unlikely to be tested, approved, manufactured, and efficiently distributed to the world’s population of nearly 8 billion people for years. Bearing in mind that there is no vaccine for any coronavirus, what is likelier is that the world will be living with Covid-19 as a part of our ecosystem for many years to come – possibly permanently. That means that our new normal is probably already here."
May 21st 2020
EXTRACT: "LONDON – The new Franco-German proposal for a €500 billion ($547 billion) European recovery fund could turn out to be the most important historic consequence of the coronavirus. It is even conceivable that the deal struck between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron might one day be remembered as the European Union’s “Hamiltonian moment,” comparable to the 1790 agreement between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson on public borrowing, which helped to turn the United States, a confederation with little central government, into a genuine political federation."
May 19th 2020
EXTRACT: "In April 2011, Donald Trump, then considering a run for the presidency the following year, said that he had sent investigators to Hawaii to check out rumors that President Barack Obama wasn’t born there, but in Kenya, which would disqualify him for the presidency. His investigators, Trump declared, “cannot believe what they’re finding.” I can find no record of Trump being challenged on this outlandish claim at the time. In the fall of 2016, Trump, now the Republican presidential nominee, was convinced by his staff that he had to abandon this “birther” nonsense. He did so reluctantly, charging – also with no evidence – that such rumors had actually been initiated by his opponent, Hillary Clinton. There, in a nutshell, is Trump’s modus operandi: he’s not just a liar but a fabulist, seemingly unconcerned with whether his fictions will be exposed. If they are, the world simply moves on as he invents fresh distractions."
May 19th 2020
EXTRACT: "Li, a doctor, was purportedly silenced and chastised by Chinese officials for warning on December 30, 2019, about a new virus in the Wuhan hospital where he worked. When it became evident that he was on to something serious – so serious, in fact, that it ultimately killed him – the Chinese government changed its tune and celebrated Li’s bravery. If only that had happened sooner, the argument goes, the world would have avoided this horrific pandemic.................... But that’s not what happened."
May 9th 2020
EXTRACT: "Jana Winter and Hunter Walker at Yahoo News broke the story that 11 Secret Service agents have tested positive for the coronavirus. Likely some of them served in the West Wing. This week it was revealed at that a US military valet who brought Trump food came down with the virus, sending Trump into a “lava level” rage. Two aides to Vice President Mike Pence have tested positive. Some observers are afraid that the virus is circulating in the West Wing itself."
May 6th 2020
EXTRACT: "There has been much debate around the world about the source of the COVID-19 pandemic, ranging from a laboratory to Wuhan’s seafood market to some other form of animal-to-human transmission. While there is no proof (yet) that the virus may have been inadvertently released from one of the two biological research laboratories located at Wuhan, there is evidence that viral release has occurred in the past, and a host of additional data that point to a laboratory connection. "
May 4th 2020
EXTRACT: "A better bet is that nothing will be the same. Wealth will be destroyed on a catastrophic scale, and policymakers will need to find a way to ensure that, at least in some cases, creditors take part of the hit, a process that will play out over years of negotiation and litigation. For bankruptcy lawyers and lobbyists, it will be a bonanza, part of which will come from pressing taxpayers to honor bailout guarantees. Such a scenario would be an unholy mess."
Apr 29th 2020
EXTRACT: "We need the twenty-first century’s two superpowers, America and China, to set the example, by burying their rivalry and uniting all of humankind around a collective response to the current crisis, and to those that await us. As COVID-19 has taught us, the old international system can no longer guarantee humankind’s safety and security. We cannot afford to be taught that lesson twice."