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The National Ignition Facility: Buyer Beware

The federal government's planned laser fusion center is being sold as an essential tool for preserving the aging U.S. nuclear arsenal. But that's not what the taxpayer is getting.

By Tom Zamora Collina

In September 1996, when President Clinton signed the "zero-yield" comprehensive test ban-a treaty outlawing all nuclear explosions-he managed to win over the treaty's strongest opponents. But this support did not come for free. The Pentagon, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the weapons labs conditioned their approval of a test ban on a number of "safeguards." As part of the agreement, Clinton declared that if ever a high level of confidence in a certain type of nuclear weapon could no longer be certified, he would be prepared to invoke the supreme national interest clause under the test ban and conduct whatever nuclear testing may be required. "Exercising this right, however, is a decision I believe I or any future president will not have to make," Clinton's official statement read. His optimism may have been connected with another condition imposed by the military and the labs: full funding for the Department of Energy's Stockpile Stewardship and Management Program "over the next decade and beyond." The program is slated to receive about $40 billion over the next 10 years.

The stewardship program is supposed to help maintain the safety, reliability, and performance of the nuclear arsenal so that no U.S. president has to resume nuclear testing. It would achieve this goal by keeping three separate nuclear weapons laboratories in operation-Los Alamos and Sandia in New Mexico, and Lawrence Livermore in California-and by spending $3 billion to build a variety of new experimental facilities to simulate different aspects of a nuclear explosion. Some facilities would address the primary stage of a warhead and some the secondary stage (in thermonuclear weapons, a primary, or fission, stage produces x-rays to implode the secondary, which releases energy through fusion); other facilities would simulate the effects of nuclear explosions on military hardware. About a third of this funding would be spent on new supercomputers to make the most use of the new facilities and to tie the three labs together into one "superlab."

The flagship of this armada of new facilities is the National Ignition Facility, or NIF, a $1.1 billion laser fusion laboratory slated for construction by 2002 at Livermore. The project has already received more than $250 million, and its total cost over 30 years would be $4.5 billion, not accounting for inflation. The decision to start construction will be made in mid-1997.

The trouble is, the Department of Energy has yet to offer a convincing rationale for why this most expensive of stewardship facilities should be built. For example, one of NIF's main purposes, according to DOE, is to help assess age-related changes in warhead secondaries and determine their impact on the reliability of the weapons. But secondary components of nuclear warheads have never worn out, and the ones we have today could probably last for decades; there is no rush to build NIF. Moreover, problems with secondaries would have a relatively minor impact on overall warhead performance. And when defects do appear, NIF may not play much of a role in fixing them.

The Energy Department foresees other, subsidiary missions for NIF. One is to maintain a cadre of scientists to assess future problems with the arsenal or design new weapons if the Cold War heats up again. Another mission is to allow civilian research on fusion energy and other areas of basic and applied science. But each of these justifications for NIF is fraught with risky or unwarranted assumptions.

Few question the need for a stewardship program to monitor the nuclear arsenal as it ages, and to deal with any problems that might crop up. The issue is what kind of a stewardship program the nation needs, and what new facilities-if any-are required to do the job. NIF is the most glaring example of a stewardship facility that is not essential to the mission of preserving the nation's nuclear arsenal.