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Tuesday, September 13, 2005  
Congress members make appeal for superlaser project

By: Betsy Mason
Published In: Contra Costa Times

Congress members make appeal for superlaser project



A bipartisan herd of California congressional delegates is appealing to the Senate to restore funding for construction of Lawrence Livermore Laboratory's superlaser project.



In July, the Senate voted to cut the entire $142 million requested this year for the $3.5-billion National Ignition Facility which is approximately 80 percent complete. The House approved the full amount, and the two are expected to hash out their budget differences in conference later this fall.



Led by Reps. Ellen Tauscher, D-Alamo, and Richard Pombo, R-Tracy, 33 members of the House signed a letter to the Senate and House Appropriations subcommittees on Energy and Water touting NIF's merits and outlining why they believe it is essential for national security.



"NIF is a vital component of our nation's stockpile stewardship program, which prevents us from needing to conduct nuclear testing," Tauscher said in a press release concerning the letter today. She also argued that NIF "has made invaluable contributions to the economies of California and the East Bay."



Tauscher has been a persistent supporter of Lawrence Livermore, and she and Pombo co-signed a letter in June along with Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Corona, in support of NIF to the Senate Appropriations Committee immediately following the Energy and Water subcommittee's decision to cut the laser's funding. But this is the first time so many members of congress have come together in support of the project.



The letter points out that numerous reviews of the superlaser have endorsed NIF's value to national security, and how the project has benefited California.



"The advances that have enabled the progress on NIF have also encouraged economic development through the creation and adoption of improved manufacturing processes. In California, NIF supports over 1,000 jobs annually," the letter said.



Another argument for continuing construction is how close the project is to completion, scheduled for 2009.



"Eliminating funds for NIF construction, as the Senate bill recommends, when the program is so close to being completed is a massive waste of taxpayer dollars. Nearly $2.8 billion dollars have been invested in this vital program since it began in 1997 and we owe it to the American people to show them a return on their investment," according to the letter.



With just four of the 192 laser beams now running, NIF is already the most powerful laser in the world and experiments are already bearing fruit for physics research.



But all 192 beams are needed to achieve nuclear fusion ignition at temperatures and pressures found only on the surface of the sun or in a nuclear explosion. This capability will help maintain the country's nuclear weapons stockpile without actually testing weapons.



Sen. Pete kcraig12



kcDomenici, R-N.M., heads up the Senate's Energy and Water Appropriations subcommittee and some have speculated that he plans to use the laser facility as a bargaining chip to get more money for projects at Los Alamos and Sandia National labs in New Mexico. Although Domenici has cut NIF funding in past years only to have it restored later, this is the first time he has tried to stop construction.



In August, a report from the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability included NIF in a top-10 list of "radioactive pork projects" that the group would like to see cut when the House and Senate go into conference. Halting construction on the National Ignition Facility would save $30 billion in the coming years, according to Marylia Kelley of Livermore-based nuclear watchdog group Tri-Valley CARES.



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/Betsy Mason covers science and the national laboratories. Reach her at 925-847-2158 or bmason@cctimes.com




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