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Local opinion columnists

Solano project that almost was may soon see its end

By From page A13 | October 10, 2012

It was going to be an enormous economic event that would transform northern Solano County and even the city of Davis.

There was a strong possibility, or so we thought, that a facility would be built between Vacaville and Davis that would rival World War II’s Manhattan Project with its economic impact. It was around 20 years ago that a location near Interstate 80, about 25 miles up the road, was in the running for the construction of the Superconducting Supercollider. That facility, if its goals were accomplished, would lead to the harnessing of a process known as controlled fusion.

Instead of choosing the Solano-Yolo counties site, the giant laser was built at the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory in the East Bay. Controlled fusion is a process that would “potentially offer a boundless and inexpensive source of energy,” according to an article in The New York Times. Many of us followed the site selection process eagerly, and you can imagine the disappointment when Lawrence Livermore was selected.

Now, two decades later, the revolutionary facility has probably come to the end of its days.

One can only imagine what the impact on Fairfield would have been if the $5 billion had been spent not far from here. If the goal of the project had been achieved, it would have had impact far beyond Northern California.

Now it looks like Congress will not approve funds for the continuation of the research and perhaps construction of the facility. We can’t say that the $5 billion spent so far has been wasted, but the end of the fusion project, if that is indeed what happens, has disappointed many in the scientific and energy communities.

Controlled fusion has been on the fantasy list of scientists since, I would guess, the 1930s. It has a science fiction quality to it, since, if successful, it would reduce the costs of energy dramatically. Many in the scientific community, of course, support continuation of the funding, but some of their associates are more skeptical.

The director of a rival facility located at the Naval Research Laboratory said of the Livermore installation, “The question is whether you continue to pour money into it or start over.”

Again, from The Times article, “Skeptics outside the government have long assailed the laser project, known as the National Ignition Facility, or NIF, as a colossal waste of money.”

If you weren’t around northern Solano County at the time, you might not appreciate the excitement that was building up in anticipation of the site selection. The failure of the NIF is described by some doubters as National Almost Ignition Project, or NAIF.

Supporters of the project point to the importance of, for example, the space telescope, which has a price tag of $8 billion. European countries have spent $10 billion on their 17-mile circular accelerator, which has been the site of some extremely important discoveries.

In spite of our disappointment over losing out to another city, we can take comfort in the economic progress we have witnessed in the past 20-plus years. Jelly Belly has become more famous than the soon-to-close accelerator in Livermore.

Bud Stevenson, a stockbroker, lives in Fairfield. Reach him at [email protected]

Bud Stevenson

Bud Stevenson


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