At Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, government scientists have just received preliminary funds from Congress to start designing the world's largest and most powerful laser system for simulating nuclear-bomb explosions.
The superlaser is the centerpiece of the administration's post- cold war "Stockpile Stewardship" program, newly created to ensure US nuclear-weapons safety and reliability through laboratory experiments. The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which the nations of the world are edging toward signing, would outlaw all existing types of nuclear tests.
The $4.5 billion National Ignition Facility - the most expensive and glamorous project in the stewardship program - could help secure a test-ban agreement by allowing US scientists to advance nuclear-weapons physics without conducting underground tests. It may also provide clues to developing fusion energy for commercial use in the distant future.
Still, the scientific challenges are daunting. Nearly 200 laser beams spanning the size of a football field will fire simultaneously into a tiny glass capsule filled with radioactive hydrogen, burning in a fraction of a second up to 500 trillion watts of stored-up power - or 1,000 times the electrical output of the entire United States. The result: a small thermonuclear explosion with temperatures approaching a full-scale nuclear test, unleashing a blast of fusion energy as hot as the sun's interior.
But antinuclear activists say such costly weapons facilities are not needed to maintain the nuclear arsenal and represent a dangerous end run around international arms treaties. The programs could also, critics charge, lead to a new escalation in the arms race.
"The NIF perpetuates the myth of atoms for peace, terrible weapons turned to the good of humankind," says Jacqueline Cabasso, director of the Western States Legal Foundation, a San Francisco antinuclear group. "If we don't demonstrate definitive leadership in efforts to eliminate nuclear weapons in conformity with our treaty obligations, we will inspire other countries to develop or strengthen their own nuclear weapons capabilities."
But David Crandall, NIF director at the Department of Energy (DOE), says the superlaser will demonstrate US strength in weapons-related research and is the best route to disarmament. "We're taking leadership," he says. "It's unreasonable to expect after 50 years of success that the US would throw its nuclear-weapons capability - and its deterrent value - away....Weapons are like original sin; once you have them, you can't give them back."
NIF supporters say that the project is vital to stockpile reliability (making sure bombs detonate at the desired yield) although its usefulness will be indirect. An advanced fusion facility, the superlaser will provide data on the fusion components of nuclear arms and will not be used to develop new weapons, they say. Researchers will also be able to develop computer calculations for modeling nuclear warheads. Much of the resulting information will be declassified and shared with international scientists.
But the NIF's main purpose, as with the overall stewardship program, is explicitly stated by the Energy Department: to retain the expertise of US nuclear-weapons designers and maintain test readiness in case the US decides to pull out of the international test ban in the "supreme national interest."
"No one can predict with accuracy the world's political situation 20 years into the future," says Bill Hogan, NIF deputy project manager at Lawrence Livermore. "Congress and the president have asked us to maintain the scientific and engineering core capability in the technology of nuclear weapons."
Critics say that the superlaser, slated for use in 2002, will be used primarily for nuclear-weapons experiments unrelated to protecting existing arsenals. Visual inspection and radiography, used to measure stockpile reliability, are still adequate for detecting age-related defects, stated Daniel Horner, deputy director of the Nuclear Control Institute, in a letter to the DOE.
The 1995 Galvin Committee, a blue-ribbon panel appointed by Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary, gave the go-ahead to the NIF despite internal opposition to the project. Mrs. O'Leary has admitted the NIF has generated much controversy within the DOE. Some Pentagon officials have also raised strong objections to its cost: $1.1 billion to build and an additional $3.4 billion over its expected lifetime, according to the Energy Department.
The Energy Department, which oversees the program, plans to build at least a dozen high-tech facilities at US nuclear-weapons labs, costing an estimated $3 billion a year over the next two decades.
Antinuclear advocates and members of the international community question US motives for pouring billions of dollars into maintaining nuclear-weapons superiority 25 years after signing the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which pledges to work toward disarmament at an early date. While the stewardship program is viewed by many as the price for getting a total test ban, critics say that such laboratory facilities could subvert the treaty's primary purpose: to cut off nuclear weapons advancement.
Former top nuclear-weapons physicist Ted Taylor, who worked at Los Alamos and was deputy scientific director of the Pentagon's Defense Atomic Support Agency, says that the NIF could provide research on new types of arms such as microwave weapons and pure fusion bombs.
Mr. Taylor also says that insights into fusion physics can be related to nuclear-weapons design, inadvertently encouraging proliferation in countries pursuing fusion technology, such as Israel, Germany and Japan-a concern shared by DOE officials.
Physicist and Princeton professor Frank Von Hippel, a DOE consultant on the NIF and former White House assistant director for national security in the Office of Science and Technology Policy, says that a presidential directive or law should clearly state that there will be no design work on new types of weapons in order to reassure the rest of the world as to the true purpose of the stewardship program.
California's congressional delegation has welcomed the NIF as a boost to the state economy. Rep. Pete Stark (D), however, later withdrew his support, calling the NIF "a welfare program for bomb-makers."
And, in an unprecedented move, Rep. Ron Dellums (D), ranking minority member of the House Armed Services Committee, requested last year that the DOE study the NIF's impact on nuclear proliferation before making a longterm commitment. The report is due this week.
The NIF netted $61 million in next year's budget, but hurdles remain. One is O'Leary's final green light for the facility, which is expected after she reviews the proliferation report.
The DOE will also hold hearings this spring for an environmental-impact study on proposed stewardship projects. And while the program has met little resistance in Congress so far, scrutiny may heighten as funding requests are increased.