- A frightening new generation of "pure
fusion" nuclear weapons might emerge from the construction of a new
superlaser at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, anti-nuclear activists
- Unlike present thermonuclear fusion,
or "hydrogen," bombs, pure-fusion weapons wouldn't have to be
triggered by a fission or "atomic" bomb made from the rare, expensive
elements plutonium and uranium.
- Instead, pure-fusion bombs could be made
so small, and with such easily obtainable elements hydrogen isotopes --
that they would dangerously blur the distinction between nuclear and non-nuclear
explosives, critics say. This, they charge, would make it easier for generals
or politicians to justify using nuclear weapons during wartime.
- Although "immense obstacles"
remain before pure-fusion weapons could be developed, their invention might
be hastened by the Livermore superlaser and other new technologies variously
known as "laser fusion" and "inertial confinement fusion,"
says a report by physicist Arjun Makhijani and his colleague Hisham Zerriffi.
- They work at a leading anti-nuclear think
tank, the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research in Takoma Park,
- "The development of pure-fusion
weapons could represent as great a departure from present-day military
postures as the hydrogen bomb did from fission weapons," says their
report, titled "Dangerous Thermonuclear Quest: The Potential of Explosive
Fusion Research for the Development of Pure Fusion Weapons," which
was released last week.
- A top Livermore scientist ridicules Makhijani
and Zerriffi's accusations.
- Rather than try to invent pure-fusion
bombs, it would make more sense to drop the planned superlaser itself --
the size of a football field -- on the enemy, jokes Bill Hogan, senior
scientist for the $1.2 billion superlaser project, known as the National
Ignition Facility or NIF.
- "In my technical opinion, I don't
believe a pure-fusion weapon is feasible," Hogan says. "Even
if it were, the things you learn on NIF are not going to help you to succeed
in (making pure-fusion weapons)."
- NIF will be used partly to investigate
ways to trigger extremely small nuclear explosions, contained within a
protective vessel, for the possible production of commercial electricity.
- "Our laser is going to fill a football
stadium. We don't see a way to(study energy generation) with a smaller
(laser). If we did see a way to do it with a smaller one, we'd do it, for
gosh sakes," says Hogan, a physicist with a background in nuclear
- In NIF, the idea is to repeatedly fire
pellets of nuclear fuel -- the hydrogen isotopes deuterium and tritium
into the containment vessel. Then lasers would fire at the pellets, like
rifles aimed at skeet.
- In theory, the laser firings should compress
the pellets so fast that their atomic nuclei would fuse and release the
energy of nuclear fusion -- ideally, the equivalent of10 to 100 pounds
of high explosive.
- NIF is presently under construction,
and its lasers should start firing by 2001, Hogan says. Construction of
the entire facility should end in 2003.
- The Makhijani-Zerriffi report acknowledges
the great difficulty of miniaturizing NIF-like components into a bomb.
However, they suggest, eventually scientists might find a way to do so.
- For example, the budding science of "nanotechnology,"
which tries to reassemble nature at the atomic level, might lead to new,
extremely powerful explosives that could be miniaturized to compress a
small container of deuterium and tritium, small enough to serve as a pure-fusion
bomb. Likewise, Makhijani and Zerriffi say, recent Pentagon research could
lead to "a reduction in the size of capacitors(energy-storing devices)
by an order of magnitude."
- Also, scientists recently reported finding
a way to compress hydrogen gas until it turns into metal. Such "metallic
hydrogen may also be an extremely powerful explosive" that could trigger
a pure-fusion bomb, they speculate.
- Hogan doesn't buy their arguments. "What
you have to do to make deuterium and tritium fuse is very difficult to
do: You have to raise the temperature and pressure to extreme values, those
values found in the center of the sun," he says. "We've found
so far only one way we believe we can do that, andthat's with these giant
- And even with giant lasers, "we
can only ignite an amount of (nuclear) fuel that produces (the equivalent
of) 10 to 100 pounds of high explosive," Hogan says. "You'd do
more damage by dropping the laser on somebody."
- Hogan's joking reassurances don't impress
Jackie Cabasso, a leading Bay Area anti-nuclear activist.
- The Makhijani-Zerriffi study "is
an important contribution to a growing body of scientific and political
evidence that the nuclear weapons establishment in this country is indeed
pursuing the development of new generations of nuclear weapons," says
Cabasso, who works at the Western States Legal Foundation in Oakland.
- Cabasso says the U.S. Department of Energy's
"Stockpile Stewardship Program," which includes NIF, is a cover
for the continued investigation of new designs for nuclear weapons. The
Energy Department maintains that Stockpile Stewardship is needed to monitor
the reliability of the existing U.S. nuclear arsenal.
- Cabasso rejects Hogan's claim that the
great size of NIF makes it irrelevant for weapons development. Size "isn't
the point," Cabasso says. "Once fusion is achieved, then the
process of miniaturizing it using other technologies becomes much more
practical and there are other technologies being explored which might be
very suitable (for this task), which that (Makhijani-Zerriffi) report discusses."
- Pure-fusion weapons, Cabasso says, would
be "particularly insidious because they may blur the distinctions
between nuclear and conventional weapons, which may make them harder to
(control)with treaties and make them likelier to be used."
- Critics cite another objection to the
development of pure-fusion bombs: A nation could more easily hide the manufacture
of such bombs than of ordinary nuclear weapons. That's because the pure-fusion
bombs would not require the use of uranium or plutonium, whose radioactivity
can be detected by U.N. weapons inspectors.
- The present way to "prevent the
spread or proliferation of nuclear weapons is by detecting the materials
needed to make nuclear weapons, (namely) plutonium and highly enriched
uranium," Cabasso says. "Since you don't need those for pure-fusion
weapons, then that means of detecting the existence of the weapons disappears."