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NIF and Proliferation

But if NIF is a waste of money or a less-than-straightforward use of public funds, is it actually harmful? From the standpoint of proliferation, it could be. Fusion research could further the spread of nuclear weapons, because the computer codes that are used to predict the behavior of the facility’s targets (the pellets that the laser beams fire on) are similar to codes for designing the fusion components of weapons. NIF would increase the number of scientists familiar with such codes in the United States and abroad.

Not only is NIF meant to be a multiuse facility open to international researchers (accessibility is one of its major selling points), but other nations such as Germany, Japan, and Israel have built or may build their own facilities for inertial confinement fusion. The Energy Department plans to institute some safeguards: scientists from states that have not signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty might be barred from using NIF, and the department could reject proposed experiments that are directly relevant to weapons development. However, since all experiments in inertial confinement fusion have some relevance to nuclear weapons, information control will be difficult.

The bottom line is that NIF would not by itself allow a nation to make a sophisticated nuclear weapon, but it could help build expertise. “Should a non-nuclear state decide to go nuclear,’ ” says Ray Kidder, a laser fusion pioneer and weapons physicist who recently retired from Livermore, “the existence of a cadre of people already experienced in many of the skills needed for designing nuclear weapons could, depending on the circumstances, materially reduce the time required to acquire them.” Just as the United States wants to use NIF to maintain a corps of experienced scientists, so might other nations use it to develop one.

On the other side, non-nuclear states that were involved in the Geneva talks on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty have ex-pressed serious concern that facilities like NIF will help nuclear states design new weapons without testing. India’s ambassador to the Conference on Disarmament, Arundhati Ghose, has warned: “The CTBT must be a truly comprehensive treaty, that is, a treaty which bans all nuclear testing without leaving any loopholes that would permit nu-clear weapon states to continue refining and developing their nuclear arsenals at their test sites and their laboratories.” The Department of Energy has sought to allay these concerns by stating that “NIF cannot proof-test any nuclear device and therefore cannot act as a replacement for full-up nuclear testing in the stockpiling of any nuclear weapons.”

This is true, but the stewardship program in its totality would provide U.S. weapons designers with more data than they have ever had, short of actual nuclear tests. The worry is that over time the labs may feel more confident about their ability to make changes to existing warheads-even to design all-new weapons-on the basis of computer simulations and experiments conducted at NIF and other facilities. On the one hand, the stewardship program tries to downplay this possibility, asserting in its “Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement” that “the issue of new-design weapons is separate from DOE’s need to perform modifications to existing weapons that require research, design, development, and testing.” On the other hand, the line between “modifications” and “new design” is not clear. Moreover, DOE admits that “it would be unreasonable to say that these stewardship capabilities could not be applied to the design of new weapons, albeit with less confidence than if new weapons could be nuclear tested.”

NIF’s implications for global security may be worrisome and its contribution to national security may be weak, but the project does have one strong suit: politics. NIF and the stewardship program are designed to secure support in the Senate for ratification of the comprehensive test ban. And because it may be years before the Senate considers CTB ratification, NIF could have plenty of time to soak up funds and begin construction. By that time, the proj-ect may be untouchable.

Or not. Once the test ban is ratified, congressional members looking to cut wasteful federal spending may see the program as an attractive target. If so, hundreds of millions of dollars would have been spent on a facility that may never be finished-the superconducting supercollider revisited. Instead of building expensive mega-facilities like NIF, the stewardship program needs to focus its resources on monitoring the stockpile and replacing suspect parts. The Energy Department could take a wait-and-see approach: continue to depend on the less powerful (but paid-for) NOVA laser for fusion-related experiments, and keep sample secondaries from older weapons under surveillance to find aging problems earlier than they would appear in the active arsenal. This way, we could wait for age-related defects to appear before breaking ground on NIF.

In the meantime, Congress should not let itself be fooled into believing that the facility is necessary for “national security.” NIF may be nice to have, but for the foreseeable future we can get along without it.

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