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Planned laser-fusion project will keep US at cutting edge of nuclear research

WHEN President Clinton announced on July 3, 1993, that the United States would continue its moratorium on nuclear-weapons testing, he declared our intent to develop alternative means of maintaining confidence in the safety, reliability, and performance of the nuclear stockpile.

This task will require investments in scientific facilities that simulate some aspects of nuclear-weapons tests. I recently announced that the Department of Energy would proceed with design of one of the most significant of such projects, a laser called the National Ignition Facility.

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Some believe this project could impede US nonproliferation objectives. I respectfully disagree, but have committed to addressing such concerns directly and fully before proceeding with construction.

As secretary of energy, I have no more important objective than to help reduce the nuclear danger. This means achieving the president's goals of a worldwide ban on nuclear-weapons testing and ending production of nuclear-weapons materials. It also means maintaining a high level of scientific expertise in nuclear weapons.

The National Ignition Facility would be the largest laser system ever built, consisting of 192 laser beams that focus their energies on a small pellet containing hydrogen isotopes. The pellet would reach temperatures found inside the sun - causing it to burn and release fusion energy. The process would be like that which occurs in stars, although there would be no prospect of an explosion or radioactive release since the events would be so small and self-contained. The facility would not violate a comprehensive test ban.

The technologies involved would permit examination of temperatures and densities never observed within a laboratory. This demanding task would require world-class expertise in disciplines including physics, optics, mathematics, computation, and systems engineering. A portion of the research would further our understanding of nuclear weapons, thus helping to ensure a safe and reliable nuclear arsenal without nuclear testing.

The active US nuclear stockpile has been reduced by 60 percent over the past seven years, and further deep and rapid reductions in US and Russian weapons are expected. As these historic cutbacks proceed, prudence mandates that the US preserve the ability to change course if world events should warrant it. A reconstitution capability - embodied in the intellectual assets and accompanying instrumentation of our weapons laboratories - in itself will help deter any would-be nuclear aggressor from thinking that the US has let down its guard.

The National Ignition Facility would have other, more direct benefits to the nation as well. Scientists versed in nuclear weapons bring vital expertise and technologies to companion work in nuclear nonproliferation, arms control verification, and nuclear safety and reliability. The project also would advance our understanding of fusion energy, stellar physics, and cosmology, while spurring world-class industrial work in precision optical instrumentation and laser devices.

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory is our preferred site for this billion-dollar construction project because of its demonstrated success in building five consecutive versions of the world's largest lasers. The project also fits well on this laboratory's evolutionary path away from a dominating focus on nuclear weapons and toward a broader array of unclassified, civilian scientific research.

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Most of the research at the National Ignition Facility would be unclassified, with broad involvement by universities, industry, and even foreign researchers. Some say this openness could aid other nations in the development of nuclear weapons. Others respond that the project would not contribute significantly to the knowledge base of would-be nuclear nations. Our objective over the next year will be to resolve, to the satisfaction of both critics and advocates, the question of whether the facility would hinder US nonproliferation objectives.

US nuclear-weapons tests have ceased, and a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty is within reach. But investments in weapons-related facilities are still required. The National Ignition Facility will help ensure that we maintain first-rate competence in an era of continued nuclear dangers.