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
"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. …