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Nuclear Spending Comes Under Fire

THE NATION

Congress members question the need to modernize weapons facilities, citing trouble with management.

July 30, 2006|Ralph Vartabedian | Times Staff Writer

LOS ALAMOS, N.M. — The sprawling nuclear weapons laboratory here is just starting construction of a $1-billion plutonium research center, part of an ambitious plan to modernize its outdated facilities.

But congressional analysts and outside watchdogs are calling it a boondoggle -- a facility that will be obsolete less than eight years after it opens. A congressional report this spring called the plan "simply irrational," and House lawmakers are trying to kill the project.

"It is stupid to put money into a limited-life thing like this," said Rep. David L. Hobson (R-Ohio), chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees energy. "We are resisting spending that money."

It was a tough -- but increasingly routine -- rebuke for the U.S. nuclear weapons complex, a vast enterprise of labs and factories from South Carolina to California that has thrived in the post-Cold War era.

The federal government has spent more than $65 billion on the complex over the last decade, and experts agree the United States has nuclear weapons that are reliable for use in war, safe from accidental detonation and secure from terrorists.

But Democrats and Republicans in Congress, as well as outside analysts, have grown increasingly concerned about what they see as sloppy management by the National Nuclear Security Administration.

Among other things, they cite scientific mistakes and cost overruns on projects at the nation's two nuclear weapons design centers -- an X-ray machine at Los Alamos National Laboratory and a laser at Lawrence Livermore in the Bay Area.

"It has been one problem after another," said Rep. Joe L. Barton (R-Texas), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. "The current administrator should be fired."

Not surprisingly, that administrator, Linton F. Brooks, who was the chief U.S. arms control negotiator in the early 1990s, sharply disagrees. He calls the program to maintain the reliability of aging bombs "a rousing success."

Bomb scientists say the extra spending on nuclear weapons is necessary because the U.S. stopped underground nuclear testing in 1992. Maintaining the reliability of the weapons -- something the industry calls "stockpile stewardship" -- requires a massive, and expensive, scientific effort.

And even though the last nuclear weapon rolled off the assembly line in the early 1990s, the complex has until recently received nearly every big-ticket item it has requested. Much of that money has been poured into scientific research, advanced computers and massive physics instruments at the Los Alamos and Livermore labs.

The most successful part of the program has involved advanced computation. Livermore has the world's fastest supercomputer, the Blue Gene L, which can perform 280 trillion mathematical operations per second. The sleek black computer sits in a refrigerated, high-security vault.

Late last year, the lab first simulated the detonation of a nuclear bomb in three dimensions, a long-standing goal critical to maintaining aging weapons.

But other parts of the scientific program have not gone as well, including the construction of a massive X-ray machine at Los Alamos known as the Dual Axis Radiographic Hydrodynamic Test Facility.

It was originally designed to photograph a simulated nuclear trigger as it implodes under the tremendous forces of high explosives. But the machine evolved into a much more sophisticated device that could take four time-lapsed photographs within less than a millionth of a second.

When it was finally assembled, though, one of the device's two X-ray arms did not work because of instability in a high-energy electron beam. The defect forced scientists to take the arm apart and modify it at great cost. What began as a $10-million project is now estimated to cost $360 million when it is finally completed.

Meanwhile, Livermore also has had serious problems building the world's most powerful laser, intended to simulate the thermonuclear detonation that occurs in a hydrogen bomb. The laser, called the National Ignition Facility, is intended to ignite fusion in a test chamber by aiming 192 high-powered laser beams at a tiny fuel target.

That proved to be harder than anybody realized, said Thomas D'Agostino, the nuclear weapons chief at the NNSA. The cost grew from below $1 billion to about $3.4 billion.

"We ran into technical problems that we couldn't imagine," D'Agostino said.

Lab officials argue that both the X-ray machine and the laser will eventually pay huge dividends for scientific research. The technical setbacks reflect their groundbreaking challenges and constitute the kinds of scientific risk the public must accept for advanced research.

D'Agostino added that many of the problems were rooted in the past and that the NNSA, which is part of the Energy Department, was doing a better job managing its activities, including dismantlement of surplus nuclear weapons and the overhaul of existing ones.

But congressional leaders say the department has hardly solved its problems.

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