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Thursday, August 04, 2005  
"Secretary skeptical of laser"

By: Ian Hoffman, STAFF WRITER
Published In: Tri-Valley Herald

Bodman is first U.S. secretary to doubt the project will help nuclear deterrence

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 theyre correct, and so I assume it is. But I want to verify it, Bodman told reporters later. This is a lot of money were talking about, and theres some controversy in Washington about funding this program.

Led by New Mexico Republican Pete Domenici, senatorshave 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 Citizens 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 hell find NIF is not needed, she said.



Contact Ian Hoffman at ihoffman@angnewspapers.com.




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