Building a Better Bomb

While condemning India for its nuclear testing, the U.S. government quietly funnels billions to research programs aimed at creating an ever-more-virulent nuclear arsenal

In one of those remarkable ironies of history, it is the very possibility of a permanent test ban that is breathing new life into the nuclear weapons industry.

Livermore sits in a valley about 40 miles inland from San Francisco. Power-generating windmills line the hills and ridges east of town, whispering over the vineyards and horse farms that still bespeak its country roots.

Vast tracts of new houses are beginning to spring up, like grass on the African veld after a rare rain, and an inordinate number of antique stores have opened in the old downtown. Livermore is growing, but it remains a quiet town, just what nuclear pioneer Edward Teller wanted when he convinced the U.S. government to build a nuclear weapons lab here in the late 1950s.

Lawrence Livermore, the lab Teller founded, sits on the east side of town. Seated on a bench outside one of the lab buildings, physicist William Hogan speaks with earnest zeal about the work being done here.

"Scientists will always continue to pursue their science," says Hogan, a polished, friendly man who is clearly more comfortable with the notion of nuclear weapon-ry than most of us might be. "I don't know how you lobotomize scientists all over the world."

Hogan is a senior scientist, one of the officials preparing to take Lawrence Livermore into the next century as a premier research lab. Like many in his profession, he is more interested in discussing possibilities than pitfalls. He still sees wonder in the work weapons labs can undertake, and wants the rest of us to see it too. "Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, it's been very difficult to get anyone interested in nuclear weapons at all," Hogan says.

We cannot simply close up shop and walk away from our arsenal, Hogan points out. That would be naive. The bombs are there, and somebody has to keep an eye on them. For as long as the U.S. is determined to remain a nuclear power, it will need labs, and physicists to staff them.

Even the most ardent critics of our nuclear policy agree to some extent.
"I have no problem with engaging weapons scientists," says Stephen Schwartz, director of the Brookings Institution's Nuclear Weapons Cost Study Project, who has spent the past few years trying to add up just how much money the nuclear arms race consumed. "Clearly, if we were to decide today that we were not going to build any more weapons, we would still need these guys around until the point where we've gotten rid of all of them."

But Schwartz and other critics wonder why it will cost us more to "steward" our existing weapons than it did to build them in the first place.

With the government's money, the weapons labs plan not only to hire the best scientists they can find, but to provide them with a stunning new toolbox full of expensive gadgets. Perhaps not surprisingly, all of the labs that used to oppose the test ban treaty will get a share of the wealth.

The biggest prize of the program is already under construction at Lawrence Livermore. Started last year, the $1.2 billion National Ignition Facility is still little more than a hole in the ground the size of a football field. When finished in 2003, it will be the most powerful laser ever built.

The NIF, as it is called, will consist of 192 separate laser beams. The combined energy of the beams, when brought to bear on a single target, will total 1.8 million joules. That's only the amount of juice it takes to heat up a few cups of coffee, but the NIF will compress the energy into bursts that last just three-billionths of a second, a tremendous concentration of power.

The 192 beams will fire simultaneously, and all converge on a pellet about the size of a BB containing thermonuclear fuel -- like deuterium, tritium, or other substances used in nuclear warheads.

That much power, aimed at one small spot, will for a brief instant raise the temperature of the pellet to as much as 100,000,000 degrees Celsius, and the pressure to 100 billion times that of the Earth's atmosphere, conditions similar to those scientists believe exist at the center of the sun.

If it works as well as hoped -- and some doubt it will -- the laser's beams will strike the pellet and spark a tiny nuclear blast, called ignition. For the briefest fraction of a second, the nuclear spark is expected to give off more energy than was needed to ignite it. If that happens, Livermore physicists will have crossed a threshold that has eluded science for a long time, achieving inertial confined fusion.

To a great degree, the NIF will mimic what happens inside the physics package of a nuclear warhead at the instant it explodes. It will allow bomb makers to continue refining weapons, and study how various bomb parts perform in a nuclear blast.

Say, for instance, scientists want to make sure that a new type of glue, or a specific metal bracket, won't fail under extreme conditions, causing a nuclear warhead to fizzle at the moment it's supposed to fire. When they were allowed, underground tests would have been used to answer such questions.

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