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Lasers and Spilled Milk

January 05, 1986

President Reagan has repeatedly said that the goal of his Strategic Defense Initiative is to determine whether a non- nuclear system can be developed to destroy Soviet missiles bound for the United States. It's about time that the President squared that statement with the multimillion-dollar program to develop a laser weapon powered by a nuclear explosion.

There may or may not be good reason for the Administration's refusal to accept the Soviet proposal for a nuclear-test moratorium. But the nuclear-pumped laser program, run by Livermore Laboratory, is certainly no justification for continued testing.

The Soviet Union was probably off base with its charge a few days ago that the most recent test of the X-ray laser, involving an underground explosion of a nuclear device on Dec. 28, may have violated the 1972 ABM treaty. But the test did violate the rule of reason and the interests of the American taxpayer.

Several scientists familiar with the program have charged that the supposedly positive results of previous tests were in question because the equipment used to measure the brightness of the laser may not be reliable. A bipartisan group of 28 congressmen wrote to Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger asking that the test scheduled for late December be postponed until the problem could be solved.

Federal officials acknowledged the existence of the dispute within the government scientific community, but after a short delay went ahead with the $30-million test anyway.

That is now spilled milk, but what about the future? Will the Reagan Administration request still more millions for still more tests of the nuclear-pumped X-ray laser in its budget for fiscal 1987? And, if so, why?

The President of the United States has sensibly seemed to rule out the use of nuclear weapons in space as part of his "Star Wars" program with his repeated statements about the program's non-nuclear nature. If he means what he says, why doesn't he close down the X-ray laser project at Livermore? Or is he even aware that it's going on?

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