LIVERMORE: Arms-control advocates claim new bomb reliability knowledge makes pricey instruments unnecessary
By Ian Hoffman MEDIANEWS STAFF
Article Launched: 05/31/2007 03:03:49 AM PDT
The giant lasers, X-ray machines and supercomputers called essential a decade ago for the upkeep of U.S. nuclear weapons have fallen behind schedule, yet even with those crippled or delayed capabilities, the weapons themselves are faring well, with little sign of falling apart. The Federation of American Scientists, a group formed by Manhattan Project scientists to advocate for arms control, argued in a report Wednesday that Congress needs to rethink some of the multibillion-dollar instruments promised to be provided for bomb scientists at the end of nuclear testing.
Topping the federation's target list is a stadium-size laser complex called the National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore Laboratory.
Livermore weapons scientists and federal nuclear-weapons managers have argued since the early 1990s that NIF and its reach for thermonuclear fusion with 192 laser beams are critical to ensuring operation of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Last year, for example, the head of weapons work for the U.S. Energy Department suggested scientists might be unable to say whether the bombs would keep working if NIF's lasers fail to squeeze fusion energy out of a pea-size ball of hydrogen by 2010 or so.
"Failure to achieve ignition in the long term could call into question our stockpile stewardship tools, and, therefore, the premise that the stockpile can be maintained indefinitely without nuclear testing," then-defense programs chief Tom D'Agostino wrote to several chairmen in Congress. Likewise for purchases of the world's fastest supercomputers and construction of a huge X-ray machine to peer inside imploding bomb cores -- all were needed to say whether U.S. bombs would work.
But Ivan Oelrich, a Princeton-trained chemist who heads the federation's strategic security project, says those arguments have lost their power as scientists learn more about the reliability of existing weapons -- the Cold War-vintage bombs and warheads designed without big lasers, supercomputers or machines capable of making X-ray movies in two dimensions.
"The things we were worried about -- the decline of (bomb) reliability without testing -- have not come to pass. Yet these enormously expensive programs persist," Oelrich said.
NIF originally was priced at less than $400 million but had risen to $1 billion by the time Congress agreed to build it. Even then, supporters low-balled the billion-dollar price tag because of a calculation that lawmakers otherwise never would pay for it. Livermore officials were forced to admit in 1999 that the laser was over budget and would not be completed by 2002 as promised. The General Accountability Office projects the final cost at $4 billion, with completion next year.
"NIF should have been operating years and a billion dollars ago, and it's fair to ask whether we should go forward with this machine when the whole context around it has changed," said Oelrich.
DOE officials said they had not seen the federation's report but take issue with observations about cost overruns and schedule breakdowns. Julianne Smith, spokeswoman for the department's National Nuclear Security Administration, said "it is important to keep in mind that all three of these facilities are unique, one-of-a-kind -- some that have never before been built in the world."
Oelrich doesn't expect the DOE or Congress to kill off the big laser, which Smith says is 90 percent complete.
"I live in the real world, and I admit it's very, very hard to kill these types of programs," he said.
Reach Ian Hoffman of the Oakland Tribune at 510-208-6458 or email@example.com.