Arms Cut Spells 'Turning Point' for Livermore Lab

Times Staff Writers

In a lobby outside the world's most powerful laser here sits a waist-high statue of Shiva, a Hindu god capable both of world destruction and creation.

The laser, like Shiva, has two very different sides: It may be used to help create new forms of hydrogen bombs, or new sources of energy for the 21st Century. Physicist John Nuckolls might well appreciate that paradox.

In April he will take over as director of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, one of the country's two labs where nuclear weapons are designed, at a time when the superpowers seem closer than ever to dismantling entire classes of nuclear weapons. If the reductions occur, Nuckolls must guide the weapons lab as it focuses on more peaceful tasks as well.

"This is a turning point for the lab. Ten years from now it will be dramatically different," Nuckolls said.

Nuckolls, 57, talks of a laboratory in which scientists work not just on top-secret weapons projects, but join with industry and university researchers to create advanced computers, medical diagnostics and a cheap, inexhaustible source of energy, as well as techniques to verify any Soviet arms reductions.

Breathless Pace

The task of managing Livermore, with or without a transformation, will not be easy. The lab has been fractured in recent months by an extraordinary public dispute among some of its top scientists that cost the lab credibility. Adding to the uncertainty, the close of the Reagan era is bringing with it the possibility of budget cuts in weapons research.

Lawrence Livermore moved at a breathless pace during the arms build-up of the Reagan years. Members of weapon-design teams worked 80-hour weeks to meet schedules imposed by Washington. But now that the nuclear stockpile has grown dramatically, some of that work is coming to an end, and Reagan's cherished Strategic Defense Initiative, which consumed up to 20% of Livermore's yearly operating budget of $870 million, is being trimmed.

"The laboratory is at a fairly important juncture," said David Gardner, president of the University of California, which manages Livermore and the other nuclear weapons design lab at Los Alamos, N.M., for the U.S. Department of Energy, which funds them. Gardner and the UC Regents selected Nuckolls on Feb. 18 to take over for retiring Roger Batzel, 66, who has held the job since 1971.

Officials say that any change at Livermore, which employs 8,000 workers, also will affect Los Alamos and Sandia National Laboratory in Albuquerque, the AT&T-managed; Department of Energy facility where engineers fashion into warheads the weapons created at Los Alamos and Livermore. But few believe that these changes will be sudden, or wholesale.

Expect Cosmetic Changes

"If the lab is affected, it will be much more like a cancer than a heart attack," said Siegfried S. Hecker, director of Los Alamos. "That's what we're planning to try to avoid--that cancer. What you have to have is flexibility."

Some scientists predict that any changes may be more cosmetic than real. They point out that the labs went through another identity crisis in the mid-1970s when they launched several highly publicized attempts to solve the energy crisis. The bulk of those programs are now defunct.

"A non-weapons role for the lab is not a real role," said one Livermore scientist who spoke on condition of anonymity. "It's an artificial role that might be used for several years until the funding for weapons came back. Our non-weapons projects have never been very impressive."

Critics doubt that the labs could secure enough funding from the Department of Energy to maintain their present size if weapons work declines as a result of either a U.S.-Soviet arms negotiations or a differing view of defense from the next presidential Administration. Although details are classified, there is wide agreement that at least 60% of the lab's budget is defense-related.

The big money comes for so-called third-generation nuclear weapons, said John Pike of the Federation of American Scientists in Washington. These are devices that would use the nuclear blasts to power lasers, for example, or broadcast microwaves at extremely high intensities.

"If they don't fly, the labs are in deep trouble," Pike said.

Lags on Energy Work

Nuckolls acknowledged that the lab "has done weapons extraordinarily well," but has fallen short sometimes in energy work such as a fusion reactor, a futuristic technology that advocates believe will provide an unending energy source.

"That is a problem. You do have to make the laboratory dramatically better," Nuckolls said.

Founded in 1952, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory was born of one of the most bitter scientific and political disputes of the post-war era--whether to advance beyond the atomic bomb to the far more powerful hydrogen bomb.

Physicist Edward Teller advocated the step and took a lead role, with Ernest O. Lawrence, in convincing President Harry S. Truman of the need for a second lab to compete scientifically with Los Alamos. J. Robert Oppenheimer, who was Los Alamos' director and was in charge of the Manhattan Project to create the atomic bomb in World War II, opposed the hydrogen bomb on moral grounds.

Teller won out, and once scientists moved to the Livermore Valley and into an old Navy weapons depot an hour's drive east of San Francisco, they honed the hydrogen weapon into a bomb light enough to be carried by airplanes and long-range missiles.

Bitter Rivalry

The rivalry between the two labs changed to bitterness when, in 1954, Teller criticized Oppenheimer for his opposition to the hydrogen bomb before the Atomic Energy Commission. The commission initially cited his opposition to the hydrogen bomb as a reason for stripping him of his security clearance, but ultimately based its action on Oppenheimer's friendships with leftists before World War II.

In later years, the bitterness dissipated, Hecker said. But the competition continues, with Livermore and Los Alamos seeking funds for projects that form the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Livermore scientists have created warheads for the MX intercontinental ballistic missile and the submarine-launched Poseidon, among others. They are now at work on a warhead for the Midgetman ICBM. Los Alamos, a lab of equal size, is working on a warhead for the Trident II submarine-launched missile. Both research Strategic Defense Initiative weapons.

Although he retired in 1975 to emeritus status, Teller, 80, remains a commanding presence at Livermore.

"You cross Teller at your peril here," said one scientist who has worked at Livermore for more than 30 years.

He is regarded as most influential in national defense matters because of his long personal relationship with President Reagan and Pentagon officials. Slowed somewhat by ill health in recent years, Teller, who declined to be interviewed for this article, visits Livermore frequently to discuss and work on projects.

Differing Attitudes

Within the lab, some scientists even define themselves by whether they accept Teller's enthusiastic, science-can-conquer-all view, or a more cautious attitude often held by those who must turn concepts into reality.

In the view of Ray Kidder, a weapons physicist who has frequently been at odds with official laboratory positions, Teller adherents are "science radicals"--overly optimistic types convinced their unproven scientific concepts can be turned into reality. Kidder counts Nuckolls as an enthusiastic member of this faction.

"For myself, this approach raises questions of (scientific) integrity," Kidder said, contending that such an approach can lead the scientists into making promises they cannot keep.

For his part, Nuckolls said he does not represent either faction. But, he added, "We need the dreamers."

"The skeptics and the critics play a very useful role, but it's the dreamers who tell us something about what to look forward to and what to try to build for the future," he said.

"We need to orchestrate them so they all work together."

At times, the Livermore orchestra has struck rather sour notes. Nuckolls must deal with lingering disharmony over the X-ray laser, part of a new generation of weapons in which a nuclear bomb blast propels a powerful burst of laser energy. The X-ray laser was a cornerstone of President Reagan's call in March, 1983, for a leak-proof defensive shield against enemy warheads, the Strategic Defense Initiative, or "Star Wars." Since then, although more than $70 million a year is allocated for X-ray laser research, other weapons concepts have taken a more prominent role in SDI.

Promoted by Teller

On one side of the X-ray laser dispute were Teller, who pushed the X-ray laser to top Administration officials in the early and middle 1980s, and his protege, Lowell Wood, who advocated it in Washington and took a lead role in coming up with the X-ray laser concept.

Physicists who must develop the device were on the other side, led by Roy D. Woodruff, then associate director in charge of defense systems, the section responsible for weapons design. The dispute festered in the lab for two years before details surfaced late last year in a work-related grievance that Woodruff filed.

In October, 1985, Woodruff quit his post, regarded as second only to the director's job, and accused outgoing director Batzel of allowing Teller and Wood to "oversell" the X-ray laser to top Administration officials, including former National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane and the late CIA Director William J. Casey.

In a declassified version of a letter to Batzel dated Oct. 19, 1985, 10 days before he resigned, Woodruff--himself a strong and optimistic advocate of the X-ray laser--said Teller and particularly Wood had underestimated the difficulties associated with perfecting the weapon. Woodruff called the "continued selling of the X-ray laser program" by Wood "simply unacceptable."

'Did Not Oversell It'

"I do know what I told Congress. . . . We did not oversell it," Batzel said in a recent interview. He contended that Woodruff's resignation was more the result of a failed grab to control all weapons functions at the lab than an act of conscience over the hyping of the X-ray laser.

Batzel defended Teller's right to speak out, and said he "put lots of qualifications in his letters" about the device to Administration officials. Teller is one of the nation's most respected and brilliant physicists, Batzel said. "He has made his contribution. He has a right to his views. I'd be the last one to tell him that he shouldn't express them."

But the dispute took a toll on the lab, and not just in damaged careers. The General Accounting Office is investigating, at the request of Rep. George E. Brown (D-Riverside). Brown said that, based on a classified briefing by GAO investigators last week, Teller and Wood's briefings to Administration officials "were misleading, particularly to individuals without a technical background." He and others say the lab's credibility has come into question as a result of the dispute.

"To the outside, it looks like a disorderly house," said Herbert F. York, who was the lab's first director and later an arms negotiator for President Jimmy Carter.

"Livermore has always been a place that excels at the biggest, fastest, slowest, coldest, hottest--whatever with an 'est' at the end," said Steve Younger, 36, a Livermore physicist and weapons designer who, like Woodruff and other scientists, left the X-ray laser program for other work in the lab, in part because of what they perceived as exaggerations of its development.

'Likes to Be at Forefront'

"It likes to be at the forefront of whatever it chooses to do. That means you have to be enthusiastic. . . . The problems happen when the enthusiasm tends to blur your judgment--when you lose the distinction between what you want to be true and what is true."

Nuckolls stayed out of the X-ray laser dispute. But over the years he has been a close associate of Wood and Teller, and is reluctant to criticize either man. His professional history shows a close alliance with Wood, whose elite "O Group" is responsible for some of the principal concepts behind SDI. More than half of Nuckolls' 60 unclassified scientific papers list Lowell Wood as a co-author.

He shares Teller's skill and interest in weapons design. In an interview, he described himself as "the chief wizard of the weapons skunk works" during the 1960s. Among his concepts is the neutron bomb, a nuclear device that kills by using a large burst of lethal radiation rather than blast concussion.

Nuckolls has come up with other futuristic ideas, among them a since-discarded concept for a "brain bomb" that would produce disorienting microwaves to leave an enemy force too confused to fight.

Seen as Key Physicist

He is regarded as one of the key physicists who came up with the concept now used in Nova, the world's most powerful laser, built at Livermore at a cost of $176 million. Nova uses 10 different lasers to create a condition so hot it exists nowhere else but inside stars--or hydrogen bombs.

Nuckolls cites Nova as part of his plans for expanding Livermore's non-weapons research. Nova is instrumental in the lab's work on fusion energy, which has the potential to create a long-sought cheap, clean energy source that could be transferred to private enterprise.

He talks of making a greater effort to offer other non-classified research to industry, everything from genetically engineered drugs by Livermore's bio-medical division to computer programs that analyze the effects of car or airplane crashes. The Department of Energy recently earmarked $1 million a year to assist this transfer of technology out of the $12 million a year it pays the university to manage Livermore and Los Alamos.

A new entrepreneurial openness could mean big money for the UC system. The university, which holds the patents to the work created at the labs, gets $200,000 yearly in royalties from licensing agreements it already has struck with industry to develop laboratory-generated technology. Gordon Longerbeam, in charge of technology transfer, said if the labs become more aggressive, the university could reap potentially $20 million a year, although UC President Gardner remains skeptical.

Weaponry to Remain

Regardless of whether Nuckolls succeeds in turning Livermore into an all-purpose national lab, the top priority of the nation's nuclear weapons labs will remain as it has been--research into advanced weaponry.

As arms treaties are struck, there will be a renewed emphasis on technology to verify Soviet weapons reductions at all three nuclear weapons labs. (Woodruff's new job, after winning a grievance, is to run the 40-worker verification program.) Some officials believe that even if there are reductions, the labs' national defense role may become more important.

"If you get down to 100 weapons or 1,000 weapons, then the potential of surprise . . . some sort of a breakthrough, could be absolutely devastating," Hecker said. "The need to guard against surprise will always keep you very heavily involved in research."

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