Not For Use Before 1 p.m., Feb. 18, 1999
Bay-Area Fusion Research Threatens Test Ban Treaty
100 National Signers Urge University Of California Regents “Declare Moratorium on National Ignition Facility Construction”
San Francisco, CA (February 18, 1999): More than 100 organizations and individuals from across the country are warning the University of California that a large laser fusion facility under construction at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, which UC manages, poses a nuclear weapons proliferation threat and undermines international treaties.
In an open letter and testimony delivered at today’s UC Board of Regents meeting, the groups said that the National Ignition Facility (NIF) may violate the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which bans all nuclear explosions. The signers also expressed concern that research at NIF and other fusion facilities, in combination, could lead to the development of a new generation of nuclear weapons which would pose severe proliferation risks.
The Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (IEER), a non-profit institute based in Takoma Park Maryland, initiated the letter. It was presented to the Regents by Hisham Zerriffi, an IEER Project Scientist, and supported by members of two Bay-area organizations, Tri-Valley CAREs and Western States Legal Foundation.
The letter asks the Regents, who have oversight of where the facility is being constructed, to declare a halt to work on NIF while questions surrounding its legality are resolved internationally. It also asks the Regents to use this moratorium as an opportunity to initiate a wide-ranging debate over the appropriateness of the University of California engaging in nuclear weapons research.
The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty prohibits all nuclear explosions in all countries, including the nuclear weapons states. “Official explanations that nuclear explosions in NIF are legal under an agreement developed pursuant to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty are disingenuous,” said Hisham Zerriffi. “The NPT allows nuclear explosions. The CTBT bans them all and fusion explosions are nuclear explosions. If the explosions planned at NIF are deemed legal, then there would be no upper limit to pure fusion explosions under the CTBT. Advances in fusion technology could render the CTBT meaningless.”
The letter to the Regents notes that “[I]f the scientific and engineering barriers to pure fusion weapons are overcome, a new class of weapons could emerge that would radically increase the nuclear threat. Pure fusion weapons would not require plutonium or highly enriched uranium, the acquisition of which is one of the main obstacles to nuclear proliferation. These weapons could also be made in various sizes, from very small to very large, and would not produce the highly radioactive fallout of current nuclear weapons. At the same time, the release of large numbers of neutrons would make them very effective at killing people while minimizing blast effects.”
The NIF project would be a major milestone along the path to pure fusion weapons since it is designed to achieve thermonuclear ignition for the first time ever without the use of uranium or plutonium. The multi-billion dollar facility would use 192 laser beams to compress a small pellet of fusion fuel to the extreme conditions necessary to achieve a fusion explosion. While the enormous NIF cannot be miniaturized into a weapon, this would be a huge step towards demonstrating the feasibility of pure fusion weapons.
The continued research on nuclear weapons could also have a significant effect on nuclear disarmament efforts. “The United States and other nuclear powers are obligated by Article VI of the Non-Proliferation Treaty which requires them to cease the nuclear arms race and pursue the elimination of nuclear weapons,” explained Jackie Cabasso, Executive Director of Western States Legal Foundation in Oakland. “Building the NIF and expanding the US nuclear weapons design infrastructure violates both of these requirements and increases the nuclear danger. It is hypocritical to condemn the Indians and Pakistanis for their nuclear tests without also condemning the United States for its continued legitimization of nuclear weapons as instruments of international power.”
Of the three nuclear weapons laboratories of the US Department of Energy, two are operated by the University of California. In addition to the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, the University runs Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico where the first nuclear bombs were designed.
“The UC Regents should use the NIF controversy to re-consider its entire role in nuclear weapons design and testing,” said Dr. Arjun Makhijani, president of IEER who holds a doctorate in Engineering from the University of California, Berkeley, where he specialized in plasma physics as applied to controlled nuclear fusion. “It is not fitting that a decade should have passed after the fall of the Berlin Wall and this great institution of learning has not had a vigorous and open debate on its role in this highly controversial area.”
In recent years, the budgets for nuclear weapons research and design at the laboratories have risen as new facilities have been built and powerful new computers to simulate nuclear weapons have been developed.
“The Regents oversee the contract for the nuclear weapons laboratories. It is their responsibility to ensure that the University is not conducting questionable research under the guise of national security,” said Marylia Kelley, Executive Director of Tri-Valley CAREs (Communities Against a Radioactive Environment) in Livermore. “Given the fact that serious questions have been raised about the legality of constructing and operating the National Ignition Facility, it is only prudent for the Regents to halt work until the appropriate international body has resolved these questions.”
A report by IEER, Dangerous Thermonuclear Quest: The Potential of Explosive Fusion Research for the Development of Pure Fusion Weapons, released in July of 1998, outlines the technical basis for the arguments made in the letter.
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