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Livermore's Hope for Giant Laser Ignites Protests

Sounding an Alarm on A-Arms. SECOND OF TWO PARTS

September 03, 1994|RALPH VARTABEDIAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ideological and political battles over nuclear weapon research were presumed as dead as the arms race, but bomb designers and arms control advocates are facing off yet again over a massive weapon project at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

The lab, east of San Francisco, wants to build a laser the size of a football stadium. The multibillion-dollar machine would deliver a wallop of light energy powerful enough to trigger nuclear fusion, generating temperatures five times higher than exist in the core of the sun.

Livermore scientists say the laser, which would be among the biggest defense or energy projects of the next decade, is crucial for maintaining their proficiency in hydrogen bomb physics in an era when the United States will be neither testing nor producing nuclear weapons.

And California politicians like it for an altogether different reason. With an initial price tag of $1 billion and an operating budget of $4 billion over the life of the project, the laser promises to keep federal dollars flowing to Livermore and bolster the California economy.

But opponents say the project, known as the National Ignition Facility, will undermine the current moratorium on nuclear weapon tests, amounting to a form of surrogate testing that no other nation has the technical capability to equal. They also criticize it as a pork-barrel project that will further pollute the environment around Livermore.

"It's large. It's controversial," admits Victor Reese, assistant secretary of energy for nuclear weapons.

The decision on whether to build the laser will be crucial in determining the size and scope of the U.S. nuclear weapon complex, which is undergoing a piecemeal consolidation in the aftermath of the Cold War. And the heated debate over the project mirrors a broad uncertainty over what should be done to maintain the nation's nuclear capability.

The two camps are maneuvering furiously as Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary weighs whether to go ahead with the project. Approval of the laser was delayed this summer after two key California congressmen--House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ronald V. Dellums (D-Oakland) and Rep. Pete Stark (D-Hayward)--broke with their California colleagues and withdrew their support.

For the nuclear weapon fraternity, the stakes could hardly be higher. Many defense officials and scientists worry that the United States is allowing its nuclear capabilities to erode too quickly, and the laser would be a major engineering tool that could help reverse that trend and keep dozens of bomb designers busy for the next decade.

Proponents say that it is vital to maintaining the safety and reliability of the existing U.S. nuclear weapon stockpile even if another bomb is never built.

Further, the laser could help save Livermore itself as a center for nuclear weapon research. As the Energy Department copes with budget cutbacks, one option under consideration is consolidating all weapon work at one lab--probably Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

Currently, both Livermore and Los Alamos conduct research on the nuclear packages for bombs, but Livermore is considered more vulnerable if a decision is made to have just one lab. The Energy Department could decide to build the laser in another state if it chooses to end nuclear weapon work at Livermore.

Livermore claims world leadership in the area of high energy lasers. And without the National Ignition Facility, Livermore scientists say their unparalleled expertise in hydrogen bomb fusion will atrophy.

While acknowledging that the primary justification for the new laser is nuclear weapon work, Mike Campbell, Livermore's chief for laser programs, says it would also be used for research on fusion as a source of electrical energy and in astrophysics.

"This allows us to keep smart people engaged in relevant physics," Campbell said. "Some people are opposed to that."

Campbell contends that large machinery like the new laser is necessary for the United States to continue its leadership in the discipline, since Europe and Japan also have fusion programs.

"It is an important area to be pursuing," agreed Sidney Drell, an influential physicist at the Stanford Linear Accelerator. Drell recently completed a study of high energy physics for Energy Secretary O'Leary. "It is good physics, and it is very good people doing it."

But opponents of the laser--ranging from influential Washington arms-control lobbyists to local environmentalists--regard it as a misguided effort that will be a waste of money and a polluting, destabilizing continuation of the arms race.

Arms control advocates say the facility will allow the United States to comply with the letter but not the spirit of efforts to end all nuclear testing.

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