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The New Nuclear Age 

Livermore protest is mere theater, but lab's research raises real questions

Wednesday, Mar 18 1998
Angling for a little public relations bounce off the showdown with Iraq, seven Bay Area anti-nuclear activists got themselves arrested earlier this month by attempting their own "inspection" of the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, one of the nation's most sensitive nuclear weapons labs.

The seven, casting themselves as citizens of the United Nations and wearing U.N. insignia, showed up at the lab's main gate March 5, demanding an opportunity to poke about the facility for weapons of mass destruction. If the United States was willing to go to war with Saddam Hussein over such inspections, they argued, then surely it should open up its own weapons facilities to search.

The request, of course, was not granted.
It was a polite protest with prearranged results -- lab security guards were told in advance that the protesters were coming, and promptly arrested them all on misdemeanor charges of blocking a roadway. All were cited and released, and the Alameda County District Attorney's Office is now deciding how aggressively to press the charges.

"They notified us, and this was arranged," says lab spokesman David Schwoegler. In fact, Schwoegler says, lab security and the protesters even agreed in advance which gate the protesters would approach so they wouldn't stray onto federal property and possibly face stiffer charges.

As symbolic gestures go, the event drew little notice, not even meriting a mention in San Francisco's daily newspapers. Still, Earl Johnson, one of the seven arrested, feels the protesters made their point -- that what's good for Iraq should apply to the U.S. as well.

"We wanted to point out that what the lab is doing in producing weapons of mass destruction is breaking international law and American law," says Johnson, a 68-year-old activist who's made the trek to Livermore and been arrested countless times over the years.

For all its apparent futility, the protest does underscore a serious challenge to the lab's operations now playing out in federal court. At issue is essentially the same question highlighted by the protesters: What is Livermore's future in the nuclear weapons business?

With the Cold War over and the United States signed on to various treaties designed to halt nuclear testing and arms proliferation, the legions of scientists who work at places like Livermore should presumably soon find themselves out of work.

But anti-nuclear activists charge that the U.S. is effectively skirting international treaties by undertaking a whole new weapons program at Livermore to continue refining and expanding the nation's nuclear capabilities.

A new facility, dubbed the National Ignition Facility, is under construction at Livermore. The $1.2 billion NIF will consist of a superpowerful laser that can be aimed at small radioactive particles in an effort to create a new type of fusion called Inertial Confine-ment Fusion.

The laser and ICF are expected to open up an entirely new generation of experiments with radioactive substances. Some of those experiments might help answer fundamental questions of science, or provide new ways of generating energy.

But the NIF will also be used to study how nuclear weapons function, and examine the dynamics of nuclear explosions without the costs and risks of actually setting off a nuclear bomb.

Officially, the NIF is part of the nation's program to maintain its current nuclear weapons, ensuring that existing warheads and missiles are safe. The lab also wants to maintain a cadre of top-flight scientists and physicists, just in case the country needs them in the future to restart weapons development.

But anti-nuclear activists charge that the NIF is just the arms race under a new name. They have gone to court, asking a federal judge to force the U.S. Department of Energy to look at cheaper and safer alternatives to the NIF.

"They have shunted aside any analysis of these alternative methods of maintaining the stockpile that would in fact not only be cheaper, but would be more in line with U.S. nonproliferation goals," says Marylia Kelley, a plant neighbor and executive director of Tri-Valley Citizens Against a Radioactive Environment. "It is intended to be an end run around the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and allow the U.S. to continue advancing nuclear weapon design."

The Energy Department, for its part, argues that the NIF does not run afoul of international treaties, and will merely allow U.S. scientists to continue researching basic physics and refining computer models of nuclear weapons.

In 1994, Oakland-area Congressman Ronald Dellums asked the energy agency to study whether the NIF is or is not in accord with the nuclear nonproliferation efforts. In its report on the matter, the agency concluded that "the NIF can contribute positively to U.S. arms control and nonproliferation policy goals."

Balderdash, says protester Johnson. "They call what they're doing 'stockpile management,' which is fancy words for continued development of nuclear weapons," Johnson says.

In legal motions filed Jan. 23, Tri-Valley CARE and 38 other environmental groups asked U.S. District Judge Stanley Sporkin to force the Energy Department to consider less onerous alternatives before firing up the NIF plant. Sporkin has scheduled a hearing on the issue for late June.

The anti-nuclear forces are also gearing up on another front, asking Sporkin to hold DOE and Energy Secretary Federico Pena in contempt for failing to comply with an earlier court order to draw up a comprehensive cleanup plan for pollution at all of the nation's nuclear labs, including Livermore, which is a federal Superfund site.

Sporkin had ordered such a review in 1990 as part of a lawsuit brought by the same coalition of environmental groups.

But the cleanup plan DOE eventually produced, Kelley says, was woefully inadequate and does little to address restoring the environmental damage done during decades of nuclear research and testing at federal labs. The environmental groups are asking Sporkin to fine DOE more than $5 million for failing to come up with the required plan, and asking for additional fines of $5,000 a day if the agency drags its feet much longer.

Sporkin has scheduled an October trial to hear evidence on the portion of the case dealing with environmental cleanup.

With any possible boost from the courts months away, at the earliest, the anti-nuclear forces know they face a challenge in keeping Livermore in the public eye. That means another batch of "U.N. inspectors" is bound to show up at the Livermore plant within the next few weeks.

While the legal gears grind slowly behind the scenes, Johnson and Kelley say plans for the next protest are already under way.

"I think the whole idea of site inspections is good," Kelley says. "Our goal is to hold DOE to its commitment to clean up its mess.

About The Author

David Pasztor


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