New Laser Project Criticized

Thursday, May 25th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — A senior manager at Sandia National Laboratories says a billion-dollar project to develop a super laser in California will threaten other projects throughout the U.S. nuclear weapons complex.

Sandia vice president Tom Hunter said the Albuquerque lab still supports construction of the National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

However, Sandia believes a smaller version should be built first to make sure it works, Hunter said in a report outlining his position on the project.

Energy Secretary Bill Richardson issued a statement Wednesday saying the project has a ``critical role'' in the department's plan for maintaining the U.S. nuclear arsenal. He criticized Hunter's comments as ``lab divisiveness.''

Current plans call for the stadium-sized National Ignition Facility to fire 192 laser beams onto a target the size of BB to simulate temperatures and pressures similar to those inside a nuclear explosion or at the sun's core.

The project has been under intense scrutiny since last September, when it was found to be three years behind schedule and $350 million over its latest budget projection. The cost has climbed from a 1997 estimate of $1.1 billion to more than $3 billion.

Richardson announced earlier this month that his department would continue with it despite cost overruns. The department has yet to detail how it will cover the increased costs.

Lawrence Livermore Director C. Bruce Tarter issued a statement Wednesday saying the California lab believes it can complete the project within the budget now laid out.

Hunter said Sandia is concerned that the laser's costs may delay by several years the Microsystems and Engineering Sciences Applications Facility, a planned complex of buildings at Sandia for developing next-generation electronics and tiny smart machines.

The escalating costs also threaten advanced X-ray machines at Los Alamos National Laboratory in northern New Mexico and extensive improvements at U.S. weapons factories, Hunter said.

The position paper by Hunter was inadvertently sent to reporters. The reason behind its release wasn't immediately known.