News and Notes

Public lecture: “The Secret Histories of Laser Fusion”

by Alex Wellerstein, published October 16th, 2014

Sorry for the radio silence last week! A lot has been going on over here. More on all that pretty soon. Tomorrow morning I will be putting up a post on the death of David Greenglass.

I wanted to let people in the greater New York City metro area know about a public lecture I am giving on Wednesday, October 29, 2014, as part of the New York City History of Science Society Consortium, at Columbia University.

Meeting of the New York City History of Science Society Consortium

Wednesday, October 29th, 2014, 6:00-7:30 PM

Faculty House, Columbia University, 64 Morningside Drive

Wellerstein - Laser fusion talk

“Clean, Limitless, Classified: The Secret Histories of Laser Fusion”

Alex Wellerstein, Stevens Institute of Technology

The invention of the laser and its proliferation in scientific settings created a unique problem for the United States government starting in the 1960s. The Cold War regime of nuclear secrecy had required an absolute legal distinction between “peaceful” civilian technology and “dangerous” military technology: the former needing wide dissemination and development by the private sector, the latter being tightly regulated under penalty of imprisonment and death. But the emergent technology of laser fusion began to challenge and blur these Cold War categories. For its proponents, which included both international scientists and private entrepreneurs, laser fusion held out the hope of clean, limitless power generation during a time of increasing energy instability. But at its heart was a form of physics that was, for government censors, far too near to the methods used in the design of advanced thermonuclear weapons. This talk will use newly declassified files to tell the international history of laser fusion in the 1960s and 1970s as a case study for looking at the unusual classification problems of late Cold War nuclear technology. 

This is a very fun talk, one I’ve been working on (and workshopping on) for a few years now. It is based on interviews with some of the pioneers of laser fusion technology, and a whole lot of documents I got declassified by the Department of Energy relating to the declassification of laser fusion technology in the 1970s, the KMS Fusion affair, and international development of inertial confinement fusion. In a world where some new fusion hype seems to be bursting out (or petering out) on a weekly basis, this is a history with more relevance than ever, and has some moments in it that are sure to shock and delight. For those who are more interested in the weapons side of the nuclear picture, there’s a lot going on related to that in this as well, in describing the back-and-forth between the work of H-bomb designs and the work on “civilian” applications, and the complete mess that this put the Atomic Energy Commission in as they tried to figure out their classification policies and priorities. There’s a lot going on in this one.

All are welcome — there doesn’t seem to be a need to RSVP. I don’t know if it is being recorded. I don’t think it is being streamed.

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13 Responses to “Public lecture: “The Secret Histories of Laser Fusion””

  1. Bill Loring says:

    Alex, this simply MUST be recorded! Those of us not in the NY area will miss out on this otherwise!

  2. Whitehall says:

    A great topic! There has been much deliberate confusion on the issue over the years. Hope to hear or read more.

  3. G. Peters says:

    Oh, this is really great stuff.

    I’d love to hear or read more about this!

  4. I hope you’ll not forget the french cas. We have a macine nearly as big as the Livermore one, they collaborate, etc. Look for Robert Dautray, and go to google.fr for info.
    R Godement, Paris

  5. larry says:

    Will you publish the text of this lecture online?

    • Not anytime soon, because I am eventually going to have it come out as an article (or two, maybe), and it is part of my (eventually forthcoming) book. Whenever the article comes out (some time in the future) I will publicize it and talk about it on here, but I don’t know when that will be.

      • larry says:

        Thats too bad… I am not sure I can make it all that way up town.. does any of the talk extend into events in the 80’s? And are you publishing a summary of the talk online …. and will you allow questions at the end of the talk?

        • Questions at the end — definitely. Most of what I’m covering goes from the 1960s through the mid-to-late 1970s but I will be mentioning some of the later work as well, but not in nearly as much detail.

  6. nukeman says:

    I am hoping that you will make this and related publications available online. The saga of Keith Brueckner and KMS Fusion is a really interesting piece of scientific history and some aspects of his publications don’t get mentioned. Most people are aware that his US patents (4,297,165 and 4,608,222) were covered by secrecy orders but these same patents were also patented in Germany (DE2240737)and Sweden (SE371521). Those two patents were not subject to secrecy orders and were publically available in 1974. The point to be made is that while the US considered Brueckner’s work to be classified he was able to get the same information out via the European patent route.

    Brueckner was not the only scientist to have problems with the “fusion mafia” here in the US. Louis Gold and Vincent LoDato both were fired from their jobs over their fusion writings. In the late 1970s LoDato did manage to get five articles on the subject published in the German journal Atomkernenergie.

    • I don’t think Brueckner submitted his foreign patents until the information in them was declassified in the USA (1972, the year of the Nuckolls, et al. Nature paper). To have done so prior to their declassification would have meant that he would have forfeited his US patents on the same subjects according to US patent secrecy law, and would have been breaking the Atomic Energy Act if they were deemed to contain Restricted Data (with very harsh penalties for that). Brueckner was very keen on filing the foreign patents, though, because the European system was first-to-file as opposed to first-to-invent. So while his other patents still had several hurdles to go through even when they were declassified, the European ones could proceed very rapidly, once he got permission from the AEC to file them abroad. And because Nuckolls et al. were not filing for patents overseas then it meant that he would have his own patents be valid even if the US ones got rejected.

      So he did not violate secrecy there. In the US the patents got bogged down not only because of secrecy but because the AEC challenged them on originality grounds (they claimed he was using information learned while a defense consultant).

  7. vince lodato says:

    Hello Alex let’s get the record straight. This is vince lodato – the last of the three little indians 1-seigel 2-lubin 3- lodato

    1. I did my work independent of the labs etc…..clarence kelly of the FBI wrote me and said that in his letter….check with the FBI

    2. I did not get laid off or fired from my job at the Rand Corporation because of my laser fusion work. I was laid off because of the Elsberg incident. I was one of the youngest at Rand and the first to go on the downsizing….Bob Salter my boss had a job for me at vehicle research in pasadena…I worked on designing a silent bullet (USA armY/CIA project) and an SST project.

    3. Yes my laser fusion work was classified restricted data. I did publish about 14 papers five are in the open literature. When I found out what I did by Bogdan Maglich….I stopped publishing and I did find the super critical state for controlled laser fusion….

    4.I was hired by the USGAO equivalent to a two star general to report on the magnetic fusion – (VP Nelson Rockefeller/ congressman Fish …the congress want to give me a medal for my work in laser fusion…I refused it…stupid me…and since 1980 I never published another paper my choice voluntarily….why I made a value judgement….the world isn’t ready for my fuel “clean” composite pellet array….go to deception watch site about the history of laser fusion and read what I wrote…..god bless you alex….vince