SAN FRANCISCO — University of California President David P. Gardner has selected physicist John Nuckolls, an advocate of President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative, to head the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, one of the nation's two nuclear weapons design centers, sources close to the selection process said Tuesday.
Nuckolls heads the laboratory's physics department, which oversaw development of some of the major concepts behind the controversial SDI program, informally known as "Star Wars." His appointment is subject to confirmation by the UC Regents, who are expected to consider the matter Thursday.
UC has managed the laboratory since it opened in 1952 under an agreement with the Department of Energy, which finances it. Nuckolls would succeed Roger E. Batzel, 66, who is retiring after running the laboratory since 1971.
Nuckolls would head a work force of 8,000 scientists and other staff members with an annual budget of $1 billion. He would take over at a time when many of the lab's top administrators are retiring, and as U.S. and Soviet negotiators work toward arms-reduction treaties that could significantly affect the laboratory's work.
Nuckolls, who could not be reached for comment Tuesday, has worked at Livermore since 1955. He is said to be among the facility's foremost weapons designers.
He also is regarded as a close associate of physicist Edward Teller, known as the father of the hydrogen bomb, one of Lawrence Livermore's founders and one of the original proponents of SDI. For example, Nuckolls took the lead in organizing the lab's 80th birthday party for Teller last month.
"John has made his mark by forcing new questions. So I would think Edward (Teller) would look on John as a guy who would be most in his mental pattern," said Jay Davis, who works for Nuckolls.
Nuckolls took over the Lawrence Livermore's physics department four years ago, and reorganized it so that it was involved in new weapons research as well as experiments that have no immediate weapons application, Davis said.
Nuckolls has spoken of the need to press forward with energy research, and advocates an international program to develop fusion power as a means of "inexhaustible" energy. The lab conducts energy research in addition to its weapons work.
Ray Kidder, a physicist who acts as sort of an in-house critic, predicted that Nuckolls would pursue so-called directed-energy weapons. These include SDI-related components such as experimental lasers and particle beams.
"I call these science radicals," Kidder said. "They tend to be optimistic about ideas that are new, I would even say fantastic."