The Pentagon’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency is funding work looking at releasing energy from nuclear isomers, an area of research that was once supported by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency as part an investigation into a new class of explosives. Now, according to news reports, two research groups are getting funding from DTRA for work on nuclear isomers: Youngstown State University and the Naval Research Laboratory.
DARPA for several years sponsored research into “triggering” hafnium-178m2 — a program that was canceled after a slew of scientific objections were raised and Congress took away funding for it. That wasn’t exactly the end of military interest. As I’ve written before, DTRA in 2006 held a series of conferences focusing on nuclear isomers, cold fusion, and antimatter, with an eye at looking at whether the agency should fund any of these areas. [For those who want all the nitty gritty details on the very weird life and death of DARPA’s isomer bomb, you can read my book, or for a shorter overview, you can read David Hambling’s New Scientist article along with myWashington Post Magazine article.]
Does that mean DTRA is funding an isomer bomb? Well, no, not really. Or maybe a little. It depends on how you look at it. One one hand, it’s no secret that one of the main interests of DTRA, a successor to the Defense Nuclear Agency, is in things that go “boom.” But Youngstown State University, which is getting $1 million of the DTRA funding, was part of a group that actually negated the results on which the original DARPA program was based (that’s usually the time when you start looking for a new sponsor). So, it’s much more likely that the DTRA program is a basic science program, which the agency hopes might one day in the future pan out into applications, be it as an energy source or, less likely, some sort of weapon.
As for the Naval Research Laboratory’s involvement in nuclear isomers, well, who knows, but I’m guessing it’s a very basic research effort. The lab investigates all sorts of things, including a semi-closeted cold fusion program. At the very least, It will gives them all something to chat about over drinks on a Friday.