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Scientists Dispute Test of X-Ray Laser Weapon : Livermore Lab to Conduct Nuclear Trial Despite Charges of Design Error in Measuring Device

November 12, 1985|ROBERT SCHEER | Times Staff Writer

LIVERMORE, Calif. — The Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory is proceeding with plans for a $30-million test of its nuclear-driven X-ray laser weapon despite charges from other government scientists that there are serious flaws in the experiment's design, The Times has learned.

The decision to proceed with the top-secret test, code-named Goldstone, next month at the Nevada nuclear test site also ignores warnings from some of Livermore's own experts--as well as from scientists at the government's other weapons lab at Los Alamos, N.M.--that a design error in a key measuring device used in all past tests has caused it to give false readings.

The X-ray laser weapon has been the most publicized element in President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative, or "Star Wars" program. But past claims for the weapon's success have now been called into question, including the most recent $30-million test, which was conducted in March and code-named Cottage.

Goldstone and Cottage are part of a five-year-old series of tests in which Livermore scientists are attempting to transform the power of the nuclear explosion into X-ray lasers. If the lasers can be focused into sufficient brightness, they might provide a beam of light lethal enough to destroy satellites or missiles in space.

Three months after the reportedly successful Cottage test, scientists at the Los Alamos weapons lab reviewed the highly classified data and warned Livermore officials that the results had been distorted because the device used to measure the laser's intensity cannot provide accurate readings and, therefore, should not be used.

Would Delay Program

Los Alamos scientists urged Livermore to develop a new mechanism to measure the laser, which would have caused an estimated delay of six months to a year in the program.

An independent internal Livermore review conducted by physicist Joseph Nilsen reached the same conclusion as the Los Alamos scientists. Nilsen's classified report was circulated in the lab on June 27. Nevertheless, when George H. Miller, the lab's deputy associate director, went to Washington in July to brief the SDI office on progress in the X-ray program, his presentation ignored the error in the experiment.

According to one source, confirmed by others--all of whom requested anonymity--scientists working on the program "were furious because Miller used the old view graphs (color slides of data) on the experiment, which did not take into account the new disturbing findings."

Repeated attempts to reach Miller for comment were unsuccessful.

Key scientists working on the X-ray laser project held a series of meetings at Livermore last summer and some urged a postponement of the December test to solve the physics problems in the measuring device. But lab officials accepted the arguments of test proponents that a delay would have unfavorable political repercussions for the program.

"Miller didn't want to delay it because it would look bad," one federal scientist charged.

At that point, according to sources who were involved in reviewing the experiment, Los Alamos scientists complained to the SDI office about the experiment's flaw.

Also, a federal scientist tipped the prestigious Jason Group, a 26-year-old committee of senior scientists, with whom the Defense Department consults on military projects involving complex technologies.

On Sept. 27, a Jason delegation visited Livermore to examine the problem and endorsed the critique of the Los Alamos scientists with whom they had conferred the day before.

Additional $60 Million

Despite the warning from Los Alamos, the SDI office recently awarded Livermore an additional $60 million, largely because of the lobbying efforts of physicist Edward Teller, a Livermore consultant and the man often credited with having sold the President on "Star Wars."

The Times has learned that the warning from Los Alamos scientists is not the first time that Livermore scientists were aware that the laser measuring device was flawed.

A major study conducted by Livermore scientist George Maenchen was widely circulated at the lab in August of 1984 raising points similar to those of the Los Alamos study and advising caution.

Measuring the results of such tests, which are conducted at the Nevada test site, is an extremely complicated procedure. A nuclear bomb is placed at the bottom of a 30-foot-tall canister filled with various instruments. Protruding from the bomb are rods, which when agitated by the explosion, are intended to emit X-ray laser beams in the fraction of a second before they are vaporized, along with everything else near the bomb, including the measuring device.

Device Throws Light

Measuring devices in the canister attempt to determine the intensity of the X-ray lasers produced in the blast. But the measuring device that gathers the rays and reflects their light also heats up in the course of the experiment and throws its own light, which can itself be confused with an X-ray laser.

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