When it comes to the safe use of lasers, one size—or even four sizes—doesn’t fit all.
That’s why Jamie King, the LLNL and NIF & Photon Science laser safety officer (LSO), is on a crusade to raise safety awareness and develop more stringent controls on lasers that approach the energy and power of NIF—about two million joules of ultraviolet energy and 500 trillion watts of power.
Such high-power lasers, once the exclusive province of large government laboratories, are becoming increasingly available to universities and businesses as the lasers continue to shrink in both size and cost.
“You’re getting these very, very high-power lasers out there, without any guidance in controls to go along with them,” King said. “Lasers go from Class 1 to Class 4. Four is the highest laser class, and it goes from 500 milliwatts of average power up to whatever we can build.
“And now we’re building things that, instead of worrying about burning your retina (the chief safety concern with Class 4 lasers), you could do serious damage to a hand, or worse.”
King, who chairs the Laser Safety Task Group in the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Facility Contractors Group (EFCOG), believes a new Class 5 category is needed to cover lasers with the potential to cause serious injury and even death. “(People) assume a Class 4 is a Class 4 is a Class 4, what’s the big deal,” he said. “And it is a pretty big deal when you get up to these higher-energy lasers like NIF.”
King, who has been advocating for the creation of a Class 5 laser standard for several years, wrote a paper on the subject in 2013. He is now in a position to push for the proposal as LLNL’s representative on the Accredited Standards Committee (ASC) that establishes the U.S. national consensus standards for laser safety.
“Most rules and regulations, once adopted, are very hard to change,” King said. “Somebody has to be seriously injured or die before any regulatory changes are made.” He plans to recommend the creation of a “discovery panel” to study the idea’s merits at the next meeting of the International Laser Safety Conference in March of 2019, where he will co-chair a two-day Technical Practical Applications Seminar.
“My niche has now kind of become the high-power laser safety guru,” King said. “I get calls weekly from people looking for guidance, and there is a discussion board run out of the University of Texas where LSOs ask questions: ‘Hey, I’m getting this super high-power laser, what do I do?’ I’ve gone to SLAC (National Accelerator Laboratory) on three different occasions to review their program and participate on review panels,” he said.
King also has advised the NASA Ames Research Center, where he once served as LSO, on the safety aspects of a 200-kilowatt laser-enhanced Arc Jet facility used to test re-entry heat shields for spaceships, including the Orion spacecraft designed to carry astronauts to Mars (see “NASA Taps Livermore Photon Scientists for Heat-Shield Research”).
Advocating for tougher standards for high-energy/high average power lasers is just one aspect of King’s efforts to promote laser safety. Since his days as LSO at Sandia National Laboratories-California, he has produced a laser safety newsletter with tips and reminders of the importance of safety. He continued the newsletter when he joined NIF in 2006, and last year he published the first four volumes in magazine format for distribution at the 2017 International Laser Safety Conference.
King’s four-page Laser Lessons News Letter is filled with facts about health effects, safety equipment, lessons learned, workshop recaps, trivia, crossword puzzles, and even cartoons created by John Jett of the NIF&PS Document Services Team. He is willing to try any variety of things, even humor, to get people to pay attention to such a serious topic. King sends it out to an international mailing list of about 2,500 subscribers. An archive of past issues is posted on the EFCOG Website.
Training is another key element of King’s multi-pronged approach to safety. About three years ago he participated in a year-long effort by the Department of Energy labs to update LLNL’s outdated laser safety training course for use throughout the DOE complex. For the Laboratory, he wrote a new institutional course called Laser Safety Conduct of Operations; and just this month he implemented a new course called Laser Alignment Practical Training for workers who align lasers of more than five milliwatts of power. The course includes hands-on training in a small laser lab that King put together with the help of NIF&PS laser technician Kurt Cutter in Bldg. 571.
“Now we have your Web-based training, your Laser Safety Conduct of Operations—a discussion class where we go over accidents—and hands-on training,” King said. “You’ll learn, you’ll discuss, and you’ll have a way to prove you know what you’re doing in order to work safely with lasers. This is really important now because we’re rolling in so many new people.”
Asked if he considers laser safety as much a calling as a job, King credits his enthusiasm for his work to his early days at the Lab. “Rob Broderick, the NIF & Photon Science ES&H (environment, safety, and health) manager, was my manager and mentor at the time,” he said. “He was a really great person to work for, and he let you know he appreciated the job you were doing, along with urging you to continually improve. And Rob said, ‘You know, you can make this job as big a job as you want, or as small a job as you want.’
“Livermore always had a mystique—it was the place for lasers. So I said, ‘Well, I think it’s a responsibility to keep us in that leadership spot.’ And that’s what I’ve been trying to do since then.”
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A new graphic brochure describing NIF and the range of careers that support the operation of the world’s largest laser was highlighted at the 4th annual STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) Day at LLNL on May 11.
The brochure, written and drawn by John Jett of the NIF & Photon Science Document Services Team, was distributed to the more than 100 Bay Area students who visited the Laboratory. California Assemblywoman Cathy Baker and Sandia National Laboratories/California partnered with LLNL for the event.
More than 100 students from the Bay Area (primarily Oakland and San Francisco) came to the Laboratory for STEM Day, a day-long interactive event for students from underserved or disadvantaged communities. They participated in an interactive “Fun With Science” demonstration, then had lunch with Lab scientists and engineers who answered questions about STEM educational pathways and careers. The afternoon consisted of hands-on workshops and demonstrations geared to engage interest and excite students about opportunities in STEM.
Lisa Gordon-Hagerty, the first woman to lead the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), toured NIF on May 1 during a two-day “homecoming” visit to the Laboratory.
Gordon-Hagerty, who began her career as an LLNL health physicist, is the U.S. Department of Energy’s under secretary for nuclear security as well as administrator of the NNSA. She was sworn in on Feb. 22 by Secretary of Energy Rick Perry.
“We positively affect our nation’s security only by pulling together, working together and showing our best selves as a team,” Gordon-Hagerty told LLNL and Sandia National Laboratories employees at an All-Hands meeting. “Simply put, under my leadership, there is no us and them.”
Turning to NIF, she said, “It is one of the most significant important research facilities in the complex. Experiments there can now achieve temperatures and pressures previously only attainable in underground nuclear weapon testing, and your work there continues to make progress toward ignition. While I won’t ask you to put a marker down on a date for ignition, I certainly hope I’m there to participate in the celebration. I’m looking forward to that.”
Gordon-Hagerty has more than 30 years of national security experience. Before joining DOE, she was president of Tier Tech International, Inc., a Service Disabled Veteran Owned Small Business providing professional expertise to combating weapons of mass destruction terrorism worldwide. She also was president and CEO of LEG, Inc., a consulting firm focusing on national security issues.
She also has served in several U.S. Government leadership positions at the National Security Council, DOE, and the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce. She holds a Master of Public Health degree in health physics and a Bachelor of Science degree, both from the University of Michigan.