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8.2.2013

Bringing One-of-A-Kind Laser Accelerator Online

A two-part series follows the Environment/Health/Safety (EHS) Division as a partner on the BELLA project from before its green light in 2009, to a record of one petawatt of peak power, to final approval in early 2013.

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It isn't often when a review team makes its way up the hill to inspect and give its blessing on a new accelerator. The last time was in 1993 when the Advanced Light Source started hurtling electrons at just under the speed of light.

An accelerator readiness review team — comprised of experts from Berkeley Lab, SLAC, and Argonne — made the trek to Building 71 last December to put their stamp of approval on the Berkeley Lab Laser Accelerator (BELLA).

"The EHS Radiation Protection Group (RPG) was instrumental in getting us through the Accelerator Readiness Review," said Wim Leemans of the Accelerator and Fusion Research Division (AFRD). The comprehensive review examines a diverse set of hazards—including industrial hygiene and laser safety—and ensures BELLA is adequately prepared for safe commissioning and operations.

"Accelerator Readiness Reviews are a big deal," says Lab Radiological Control Manager David Kestell, "but the BELLA team was exceedingly well prepared and the review went smoothly." Before the review team arrived, the laser plasma accelerator already had set a world record of a petawatt of power in a 40-femtosecond pulse, repeated once each second. No other laser system had achieved this peak power at this rapid pulse rate.

The review went smoothly and quickly for several reasons. A great deal of planning by AFRD and RPG team members mitigated the chances for surprises. The teams worked together for four months to make the process transparent. Also, the two groups worked closely with the Berkeley Site Office (BSO), keeping all parties involved apprised of ongoing developments. Consistently emphasizing safety, from construction to reaching a petawatt of peak power, created a strong sense of preparedness.

"BELLA was the third device built from Wim's group, yet we still involved people at all levels to help assure BSO that we were thorough and knowledgeable in safeguarding this new technology," Kestell said. "We explained what was happening to BSO and Department of Energy HQ staff alike, which created a stronger understanding of what we were doing.

Leemans looks to the RPG as trusted partners his group will continue to work alongside, especially as both entities learn how the new equipment works. BELLA is new technology and many of the system's uses and capabilities are yet to be discovered, much like the scientific breakthroughs the researchers hope to achieve using the device. "If we invent something new that makes the machine work better, we have to re-evaluate safety and controls standards," Leemans said.

Although the two groups have a longstanding and close working relationship, there still are boundaries. "It's not like we have the RPG in our back pocket," Leemans points out. "They'll tell us when our planned operations potentially could exceed regulations."

While BELLA currently has estimated performance expectations, Leemans knows those could change as his team learns more about the equipment and what additional things it could do.

RPG team members— share the enthusiasm Leemans and his group have for the BELLA project accomplishments to date. The continued collaboration will help guide them into unknown territories.

"You have to launch projects like this in an organized, professional manner," Leemans says. Contributions from EHS team members helped toward that goal, and he looks forward to keeping that partnership alive.

Read about how EHS partnered with the BELLA team during the acclerator's accreditation.

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