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THE MAN WHO BLEW THE WHISTLE ON 'STAR WARS' : Roy Woodruff's Ordeal Began When He Tried to Turn the Vision of an X-ray Laser into Reality

July 17, 1988|ROBERT SCHEER | Robert Scheer, a Times staff writer whose collection of essays, "Thinking Tunafish, Talking Death," will be published by Hill and Wang this fall, has written extensively about the Strategic Defense Initiative.

IN THE DUSTY town of Livermore, nestled in the Amador Valley, where cows compete with zinfindel grapes for land not yet requisitioned by the local nuclear weapons lab, the dreams of Edward Teller, father of the H-bomb and "Star Wars," may finally have gone to ground.

These are dark, brooding days for the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, "the house that Teller built," a rambling complex of Quonset huts and low-rise office buildings two hours due east of San Francisco. One of only two places in the United States where you can legally develop a nuclear weapon, Livermore's barbed-wire perimeter, security passes whose various colors denote levels of clearance, and Top Secret and Classified stamps on virtually every laundry list in the place still present the lab as an efficient outpost of the military-industrial complex. But now there is also a scent of scandal as investigators from various federal agencies and congressional offices comb the premises, poring over records and interviewing staffers to determine if all is in order.

For the first time in the lab's history, key members of its leadership have broken ranks and gone public with tales of internal disarray. And for the first time, Teller, the lab's revered 80-year-old co-founder, now an associate director emeritus, is on the defensive. He is charged by an unlikely whistle-blower--Roy Woodruff, a highly regarded and conservative former director of the laboratory's weapons program--with having seriously misled the Reagan Administration about the X-ray laser, centerpiece of the Strategic Defense Initiative.

The persistent questions asked in the watering holes of Livermore by those not preoccupied with pickup trucks and country tunes are: Did Edward Teller deceive his old friend, President Ronald Reagan, by telling him what he wanted to hear even though it was not quite true? And as a result, were billions of dollars wasted and an imminent breakthrough in arms control derailed?


FOR 50 YEARS, the Hungarian-born Teller has tried to surmount the opposition of less militant scientists and provide security for his adopted nation through the power of nuclear explosions. He fought scientists such as A-bomb developer Robert Oppenheimer, who thought the atomic bomb sufficient deterrence to Soviet weaponry, and he helped guide and goad generations of Livermore scientists who perfected the hydrogen bomb and then squeezed it to fit a forest of missiles in all shapes and sizes.

One of those scientists, Roy Woodruff, 47, has spent his adult life, since joining the lab in 1968, perfecting nuclear weapons. By 1982, he had become head of nuclear-weapons development. A solid man of military bearing, Woodruff had established himself as a strong team player, far more likely to go along with the lab's programs than to dissent. But his ascension to the leadership of the lab's nuclear-weapons program at a time when its budget would become increasingly dependent upon "Star Wars" would leave him feeling torn between the lab management's desire for increased funding and the demands of scientific integrity.

The lab's budget for nuclear weapons, which had declined 40% during the 1970s, would rise 25% during the first five years of the Reagan Administration. But now there was a new threat to the weapons developers: America's Catholic bishops, dovish congressmen and grass-roots physicians' peace movements had united to demand a freeze on all new nuclear weapons. For Teller, the nuclear-freeze movement raised echoes of historic debates about making the atomic and hydrogen bombs. And he responded, as he had in the past, with a vision of nuclear power, this time one of nuclear weapons that would form a shield to protect against the others he had helped pioneer.

"Our answer to (the freeze movement)," Teller said in a 1982 internal Livermore talk, "can be and should be that we have the third generation of nuclear weapons. . . . The Second World War could have been avoided--I was there, I knew it--if the democracies had been prepared. The third world war can be avoided if the people preaching the freeze will not succeed, and if those of us who are trying to develop the defensive weapons will succeed. . . . I think we have come dangerously close to a third catastrophe. It yet may be averted, and if it is, I am certain that this laboratory will play no small part in it."

The basis of the new generation of arms, the "space shield," as Teller described it, would be the nuclear-pumped X-ray laser, a weapon that would concentrate the energy of a nuclear blast into a beam of destructive light that could zap every Soviet missile in sight.

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