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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 43, January - February 2000

New Controversy over US National Ignition Facility

The US Energy Department's (DoE) National Ignition Facility (NIF) at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory - a massive laser-array complex intended to create conditions similar to those in a thermonuclear explosion and so compensate scientists for the loss of data generated by nuclear testing - is experiencing serious managerial and administrative problems. On January 10, an internal DoE report concluded "serious challenges and hurdles remain" in the path of completing the NIF project, which was started in 1997 and is already US$350 million over-budget. On December 21, the New York Times quoted Energy Secretary Bill Richardson as suggesting that "there may have been an effort of concealment" by NIF management, in the hope that problems would remain undetected.

The same New York Times article also reported that, in late October, Senator Tom Harkin (Democrat - Iowa) had written to Richardson raising the sensational possibility that NIF-tests may violate the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) - the suggestion being that the anticipated momentary release during a NIF detonation of around 15 pounds of TNT might infringe the strict 'zero-yield' requirement of Article I of the test ban. Harkin wrote: "It is troubling that we are planning to ignite thermonuclear explosions at NIF that may violate the…Treaty's ban on nuclear explosions…" This fear, however, is dismissed by Administration officials: the article quoted John Holum, Under-Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, insisting that "we specifically carved out that activity as something we expected to continue under a zero yield treaty."

Report: Energy Dept. said bungled project, Associated Press, January 11; A leading alternative to nuclear tests falters, New York Times, December 21, http://www.nytimes.com/library/national/science/122199sci-laser-facility.html

© 2000 The Acronym Institute.

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