Officials Debate Nuclear Facility

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If all goes as planned, the world's largest laser may soon train 192 high-powered beams on a fuel capsule no larger than a BB pellet, creating temperatures as hot as the center of sun and simulating a nuclear blast.

If all goes as planned, the UC will fulfill the hopes of government officials who believe construction of the university-managed National Ignition Facility will bridge the uneasy divide between a federal moratorium on weapons testing and the need to ensure that existing warheads are safe.

And, if all goes as scheduled, the gargantuan football stadium-sized complex at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory -- the holy grail of nuclear weapons technology -- will soon be able to provide scientists with information on everything from astrophysics to radiation.

Set for completion in 2008, the facility promises to help scientists collect valuable data about nuclear weapons without the dangers of an actual blast.

But at the same time, the multi-billion dollar construction project is beset by problems, and some critics even question whether its goals can ever be accomplished.

A report released last week by a nuclear watchdog group says the facility's cost could top $10 billion when operating costs are taken into account, even though lab officials peg the number at closer to $3 billion. In the 18-page report, the Natural Resources Defense Council says the project is poorly managed and lacks the benefit of independent review.

Also this month, a high-ranking official at the Sandia National Laboratory in Albuquerque, N.M., one of the federal government's three nuclear labs, called for cuts in the budget and size of the facility.

Tom Hunter, Sandia's senior vice president for defense programs, said in a statement that the facility siphons money from other important projects.

"The apparent delay and significant increase in cost for the NIF is sufficient in that it will disrupt the investment needed to be made at other laboratories, and perhaps at the production plants, by several years," he says. "This causes us to question what is a reasonable investment in the NIF."

Despite these problems, Lawrence Livermore officials insist that the project's benefits outweigh any temporary setbacks. And, they argue, the science at the root of the construction is sound.

Scientists think they can use the facility to produce more energy than the laser consumes for the first time ever in a laboratory.

In short, the facility consists of 192 small laser beams, amplified many times to increase their energy. These beams will be shot through large tubes to a target chamber where the laser will compress the target until it ignites.

Critics, however, say such a feat is technically impossible and that the project amounts to a consumptive money pit. Additionally, laser experts have said that unless scientists make substantial changes, the facility can currently only operate at half power.

Marylia Kelley, executive director of the Tri-Valley CAREs, a Livermore-based group that monitors nuclear weapons, said it may take years to solve the facility's technical problems and that, in the meantime, its cost will continue to spiral out of control.

She also accused the facility of harming the environment and of polluting the area around the lab with radioactive toxic waste. The laser's bullet-sized target is created with a combination of deuterium and tritium, and Kelley said these chemicals will invariably make their way into the environment.

"There is good reason to believe that there will be tritium contamination from NIF," she says.

Activists have long accused Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory of releasing dangerous amounts of tritium, or radioactive hydrogen, into the surrounding area.

Laboratory figures, however, indicate that the facility would release less than .05 grams of tritium annually. The target itself will contain less tritium than is used to light a theater exit sign, lab officials say.

Kelley also calls the project "hypocritical" and said it amounts to a violation of the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which was crafted to stop nuclear weapons testing.

"One of our major concerns is that NIF will promote nuclear proliferation," Kelley says. "Experiments on the National Ignition Facility will advance nuclear weapons science, and information will leak out to other interested countries. We are spending $10 billion on the National Ignition Facility at a time where we're telling the rest of the world to forgo their nuclear weapons programs. NIF tells the rest of the world we're continuing to make our stockpiles more sophisticated."

The facility is not necessary to make current nuclear weapons safer or more reliable, Kelley says. She accuses lab officials of designing the project to circumvent the ban on nuclear testing.

"NIF's real usefulness is allowing nuclear weapons designers a tool to continue their deadly pursuit," she says. "That's really the only thing it's good for."

But lab spokesperson Susan Houghton calls the project a "cornerstone" of the government program to make nuclear weapons safer and says critics have not examined the evidence objectively.

The public policy governing the facility should no longer be debated, Houghton says, and a series of scientists and independent review panels have determined that construction should continue.

The only question remaining, she says, is whether the facility should be built on such a large scale.

"NIF has undergone more than 20 types of reviews and all reviews have concluded that the technical basis is sound," she says. "We are moving forward. This will be the faculty that will change the world."

Anti-nuclear advocates wrongly make the facility the target of their activism, Houghton says.

"This is not an emotional issue," she says. "It's a technical issue. It's hard to debase the emotions of it."

Houghton emphasizes that the lab does not set policy. Rather, it carries out directions handed down from the U.S. Department of Energy, which determines whether or not the project complies with the test ban treaty.

"Lawrence Livermore is not a political entity -- it's a government facility," Houghton says. "It's not up to Lawrence Livermore to decide whether NIF is in the spirit of the test ban treaty."

She says construction costs have indeed increased by approximately $1 billion since the original estimate, but that the additional cost is necessary to create cutting-edge technology.

The project has benefits beyond its role in nuclear technology, Houghton adds. Scientists can use the facility to work toward fusion energy power plants, for example.

"Essentially, we had some cost overruns," she says. "We changed the way we approached project management. We are creating the world's largest laser. In building this facility, we underestimated the contingency that was needed."

Eight lasers are expected to work by 2004, and all 192 high-power beams should be done four years after that, she says.

But less than one year ago, Energy Department officials estimated that the project would cost $350 million and be completed in the next five years.

Even though the laboratory employs a fleet of scientists to design and construct the facility, one weapons expert still questions whether the project is feasible.

Marion Fulk, a retired scientist who used to work at the laboratory, says he wonders if the laser will ever be completed.

He says the facility may help create the technology to build new weapons, but that it will not make existing weapons any safer.

In addition, he accuses the project's planners of attempting to redesign current nuclear weapons, even though he says such a step is unnecessary to ensure the weapons' safety. Rather, Fulk says planners should worry about replacing faulty wiring and aging parts.

"From my understanding of working around the problems for many years, I don't see how NIF is going to help," he said. "I'm not convinced NIF is going to contribute much to the reliability or safety of our stockpile. It will just lead to new forms of weapons."


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