At Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, government scientists have just received preliminary funds from Congress to start designing the world's largest and most powerful laser system for simulating nuclear-bomb explosions.
The superlaser is the centerpiece of the administration's post- cold war "Stockpile Stewardship" program, newly created to ensure US nuclear-weapons safety and reliability through laboratory experiments. The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which the nations of the world are edging toward signing, would outlaw all existing types of nuclear tests.
The $4.5 billion National Ignition Facility - the most expensive and glamorous project in the stewardship program - could help secure a test-ban agreement by allowing US scientists to advance nuclear-weapons physics without conducting underground tests. It may also provide clues to developing fusion energy for commercial use in the distant future.
Still, the scientific challenges are daunting. Nearly 200 laser beams spanning the size of a football field will fire simultaneously into a tiny glass capsule filled with radioactive hydrogen, burning in a fraction of a second up to 500 trillion watts of stored-up power - or 1,000 times the electrical output of the entire United States. The result: a small thermonuclear explosion with temperatures approaching a full-scale nuclear test, unleashing a blast of fusion energy as hot as the sun's interior.
But antinuclear activists say such costly weapons facilities are not needed to maintain the nuclear arsenal and represent a dangerous end run around international arms treaties. The programs could also, critics charge, lead to a new escalation in the arms race.
"The NIF perpetuates the myth of atoms for peace, terrible weapons turned to the good of humankind," says Jacqueline Cabasso, director of the Western States Legal Foundation, a San Francisco antinuclear group. "If we don't demonstrate definitive leadership in efforts to eliminate nuclear weapons in conformity with our treaty obligations, we will inspire other countries to develop or strengthen their own nuclear weapons capabilities."
But David Crandall, NIF director at the Department of Energy (DOE), says the superlaser will demonstrate US strength in weapons-related research and is the best route to disarmament. "We're taking leadership," he says. "It's unreasonable to expect after 50 years of success that the US would throw its nuclear-weapons capability - and its deterrent value - away....Weapons are like original sin; once you have them, you can't give them back."
NIF supporters say that the project is vital to stockpile reliability (making sure bombs detonate at the desired yield) although its usefulness will be indirect. An advanced fusion facility, the superlaser will provide data on the fusion components of nuclear arms and will not be used to develop new weapons, they say. Researchers will also be able to develop computer calculations for modeling nuclear warheads. Much of the resulting information will be declassified and shared with international scientists.
But the NIF's main purpose, as with the overall stewardship program, is explicitly stated by the Energy Department: to retain the expertise of US nuclear-weapons designers and maintain test readiness in case the US decides to pull out of the international test ban in the "supreme national interest."
"No one can predict with accuracy the world's political situation 20 years into the future," says Bill Hogan, NIF deputy project manager at Lawrence Livermore. …