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Secretary skeptical of laser
Bodman is first U.S. secretary to doubt the project will help nuclear deterrence

By Ian Hoffman, STAFF WRITER
Alameda Newspapers Group/Inside Bay Area

LIVERMORE -- For the first time, a U.S. energy secretary publicly has
admitted uncertainty over whether a giant laser at Lawrence Livermore
National Laboratory - now the nations largest scientific construction
project - is needed for maintaining the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

I dont know, Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman said Wednesday at the lab.
Certainly there are strong beliefs among the leadership of this
laboratory that it is.

Bodman, an MIT-trained chemical engineer and former professor, said he
tends to trust their judgment. Yet while Bodman toured the stadium-sized
National Ignition Facility, his staff rebuffed requests by Livermore
officials for Bodman to hold a news conference there.

I always believe in taking people at their word, that they're correct,
and so I assume it is. But I want to verify it, Bodman told reporters
later. This is a lot of money we're talking about, and there's some
controversy in Washington about funding this program.

Led by New Mexico Republican Pete Domenici, senators have cut $163
million from the big laser, including all of its construction funding.
Counterparts in the House preserved money for the laser, which is
scheduled for completion in 2008. Lawmakers of the two chambers will
negotiate on the laser and other differences in their funding bills on
their return from recess.

Critics of NIF called Bodmans comments refreshing and encouraging.
Congress funded the 192-beam laser on the strength of arguments that it
is essential for maintaining U.S. nuclear warheads and bombs while the
nation holds to a moratorium on explosive nuclear tests - even as the
cost of the laser soared from less than $1 billion to more than $4 billion.

Three previous energy secretaries or high-ranking subordinates have
assured Congress that NIF and its goal of triggering a miniature
thermonuclear explosion inside a lab were critical to preserving the
U.S. nuclear deterrent.

The reasons are partly political. The Clinton administration reached an
agreement with senior nuclear weapons scientists to provide giant new
experimental facilities such as NIF if weaponeers would drop or soften
their objections to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

The Senate rejected the treaty, but energy secretaries have kept the
bargain with the nuclear weapons labs despite concerns over whether the
hydrogen targets will work and whether the lasers crystals can handle
the intense light energy needed to attempt fusion.

Its not going to ignite, its not going to meet its initial design
criteria. Theyre not going to get the shots at the power they thought
they were, says Thomas Cochran, a physicist and nuclear-weapons analyst
at the Natural Resources Defense Council. He said Bodman should get
good, independent technical advice on what the laser is capable of doing
and at what expense.

NIF, Cochran said, was always meant to certify the continued operation
of Livermore laboratory, not the stockpile.

U.S. weapons scientists are sharply divided on the usefulness of the big
laser. Some say it is essential. Livermores own most prolific bomb
designer argues the machine is worse than useless for weapons because it
draws money and time away from more important studies. Such critics say
U.S. nuclear weapons were tested rigorously and will explode with
extraordinary reliability, regardless of whether the big laser is built.

Advocates of the laser say the focal point of its many beams will come
closer to creating the extreme temperatures and pressures inside stars
and exploding nuclear weapons than any other experimental facility.
Scientists plan to measure how bomb materials and parts behave under
those conditions and use those measurements to increase the accuracy of
supercomputer simulations used to verify the operation of nuclear weapons.

Over time, however, critics worry the use of tiny fusion explosions - if
they are achieved on the big laser - will pull the computer simulations
farther and farther away from actual nuclear tests, a phenomenon called
code drift. Absent care in translating the experimental results to
massive H-bomb detonations, weaponeers would risk having less reality in
the basic tools they use to certify that aged, modified or entirely new
nuclear weapons will work.

I will want to personally understand some of the details of that linkage
before I draw my own conclusions, Bodman told reporters Wednesday.

Marylia Kelley, head of a Livermore-based watchdog group, Tri-Valley
Communities Against a Radioactive Environment, has spent years learning
about and arguing against the National Ignition Facility.

Its a key question, and if he visits it thoroughly and honestly, I think
he'll find NIF is not needed, she said.

Contact Ian Hoffman at

Marylia Kelley
Executive Director
Tri-Valley CAREs
(Communities Against a Radioactive Environment)
2582 Old First Street
Livermore, CA USA 94551

phone (925) 443-7148
fax (925) 443-0177

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