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Arms Cut Spells 'Turning Point' for Livermore Lab

February 29, 1988|DAN MORAIN and ROBERT A. JONES | Times Staff Writers

LIVERMORE, Calif. — In a lobby outside the world's most powerful laser here sits a waist-high statue of Shiva, a Hindu god capable both of world destruction and creation.

The laser, like Shiva, has two very different sides: It may be used to help create new forms of hydrogen bombs, or new sources of energy for the 21st Century. Physicist John Nuckolls might well appreciate that paradox.

In April he will take over as director of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, one of the country's two labs where nuclear weapons are designed, at a time when the superpowers seem closer than ever to dismantling entire classes of nuclear weapons. If the reductions occur, Nuckolls must guide the weapons lab as it focuses on more peaceful tasks as well.

"This is a turning point for the lab. Ten years from now it will be dramatically different," Nuckolls said.

Nuckolls, 57, talks of a laboratory in which scientists work not just on top-secret weapons projects, but join with industry and university researchers to create advanced computers, medical diagnostics and a cheap, inexhaustible source of energy, as well as techniques to verify any Soviet arms reductions.

Breathless Pace

The task of managing Livermore, with or without a transformation, will not be easy. The lab has been fractured in recent months by an extraordinary public dispute among some of its top scientists that cost the lab credibility. Adding to the uncertainty, the close of the Reagan era is bringing with it the possibility of budget cuts in weapons research.

Lawrence Livermore moved at a breathless pace during the arms build-up of the Reagan years. Members of weapon-design teams worked 80-hour weeks to meet schedules imposed by Washington. But now that the nuclear stockpile has grown dramatically, some of that work is coming to an end, and Reagan's cherished Strategic Defense Initiative, which consumed up to 20% of Livermore's yearly operating budget of $870 million, is being trimmed.

"The laboratory is at a fairly important juncture," said David Gardner, president of the University of California, which manages Livermore and the other nuclear weapons design lab at Los Alamos, N.M., for the U.S. Department of Energy, which funds them. Gardner and the UC Regents selected Nuckolls on Feb. 18 to take over for retiring Roger Batzel, 66, who has held the job since 1971.

Officials say that any change at Livermore, which employs 8,000 workers, also will affect Los Alamos and Sandia National Laboratory in Albuquerque, the AT&T-managed Department of Energy facility where engineers fashion into warheads the weapons created at Los Alamos and Livermore. But few believe that these changes will be sudden, or wholesale.

Expect Cosmetic Changes

"If the lab is affected, it will be much more like a cancer than a heart attack," said Siegfried S. Hecker, director of Los Alamos. "That's what we're planning to try to avoid--that cancer. What you have to have is flexibility."

Some scientists predict that any changes may be more cosmetic than real. They point out that the labs went through another identity crisis in the mid-1970s when they launched several highly publicized attempts to solve the energy crisis. The bulk of those programs are now defunct.

"A non-weapons role for the lab is not a real role," said one Livermore scientist who spoke on condition of anonymity. "It's an artificial role that might be used for several years until the funding for weapons came back. Our non-weapons projects have never been very impressive."

Critics doubt that the labs could secure enough funding from the Department of Energy to maintain their present size if weapons work declines as a result of either a U.S.-Soviet arms negotiations or a differing view of defense from the next presidential Administration. Although details are classified, there is wide agreement that at least 60% of the lab's budget is defense-related.

The big money comes for so-called third-generation nuclear weapons, said John Pike of the Federation of American Scientists in Washington. These are devices that would use the nuclear blasts to power lasers, for example, or broadcast microwaves at extremely high intensities.

"If they don't fly, the labs are in deep trouble," Pike said.

Lags on Energy Work

Nuckolls acknowledged that the lab "has done weapons extraordinarily well," but has fallen short sometimes in energy work such as a fusion reactor, a futuristic technology that advocates believe will provide an unending energy source.

"That is a problem. You do have to make the laboratory dramatically better," Nuckolls said.

Founded in 1952, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory was born of one of the most bitter scientific and political disputes of the post-war era--whether to advance beyond the atomic bomb to the far more powerful hydrogen bomb.

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