A class on nuclear arms -- by a man who designs them

Cory Coll earns his living by designing nuclear weapons. This fall he's been spending one evening a week teaching a course on nuclear disarmament. It's called ''Survey of Nuclear Weapons: Effects, Doctrine, and Arms Control.''

Most of the 15 people who signed up for the nine Monday night classes at Livermore High School are connected in some way with the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, just a few blocks down East Avenue. In the Advanced Development Division of the lab, Mr. Coll is working on ''fission explosives that are insensitive'' - that is, he explains, less likely than fusion devices to be detonated by accident.

Both the Lawrence Livermore and White Sands, N.M., laboratories are run by the University of California under contract to the US Department of Defense. All US nuclear bombs and warheads have been developed by these labs, and Lawrence Livermore currently is designing the MX missile warhead.

Coll says his class is designed for anyone who wishes to understand better the development of nuclear weapons and the attempts over the years to control and reduce them. But the 1 1/2-hour weekly sessions are particularly useful for employees of Lawrence Livermore, Coll says, because ''people always seem to expect lab employees to know all about nuclear weapons and related issues.''

But, he points out, there are a lot of programs at Lawrence Livermore unrelated to weapons. And even people employed in that area often have knowledge of just a limited area or perform tasks that require no knowledge of nuclear weapons themselves - or of the national and international issues they have created.

''Naturally, they are curious about the total picture, and in my opinion it's good for them to understand it,'' Coll adds. ''I think what I'm doing is important, and I think the public is generally ill-informed on this issue.''

He says it's clear that many people who hold strong opinions about the danger of nuclear war and have taken sides in the debate over a nuclear-weapons freeze have a very shallow knowledge of the subject.

A friend who is involved in Livermore's after-school education program suggested he offer the course, Coll says. It was a natural step for someone with his long-term interest in history - especially the history of the Manhattan Project (which developed the first atom bomb), the development of radar, and the nuclear arms-limitation negotiations that began in the late 1950s.

His qualifications include a doctorate in solid-state physics, three years of teaching in the physics department of the University of California at Los Angeles, and almost seven years in nuclear weapons work.

Open to 11th- and 12th-grade students and to adults, the course is comprised of nine weekly units: two on the conventional and strategic East-West military balance; two surveying and evaluating US nuclear doctrine since President Eisenhower; one that was a debate - open to the public - between advocates and opponents of the nuclear freeze; two on arms-control agreements, including SALT I and SALT II; one on President Reagan's START (strategic arms reduction talks) proposals; and the last session on projected effects of a nuclear war.

Though Coll packs the sessions with information, he also encourages questions , which tends to make the classes run a few minutes long. No one seems to mind.

The freeze debate, held in a local auditorium the night before Californians voted on a freeze initiative, attracted a large crowd - many of them high school pupils, according to one member of the class.

Asked what he wants his students to take out of the course, Coll says he would like them to have enough information to make up their own minds about the issues spawned by nuclear weapons. On the rare occasions when he expresses his own opinion in class, Coll says, he makes clear that it is opinion. In the debate session, he and a Lawrence Livermore associate took the ''No'' side against two representatives of the freeze movement.

One woman in the class says she is the wife of a lab employee and felt she needed to know more about the nuclear weapons issues - for the sake of herself and her children. A young man who is a computer technician at the lab says he wants to ''get behind the rhetoric in the nuclear debate'' and likes the way Coll handles the subject. His wife, a psychologist in the local school system, also attends the class; she says there is plenty of evidence that students, especially in high school, are concerned about nuclear war.

Coll says he would like to see a textbook, below college level, dealing with the issues of nuclear war and disarmament. If he teaches the course again, he adds, he probably will have fewer - but perhaps longer - sessions and will try to provide ''notes'' in lieu of a formal textbook.

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