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Future Giant Laser Threatened by Cuts

Associated Press | June 16, 2005
By ERICA WERNER

A giant laser being built to simulate the explosion of a hydrogen bomb is facing funding cuts in the Senate that supporters say could kill the project after $2.8 billion has been spent on it.

The device, which would focus 192 lasers at a single point to create a huge release of energy, is nearing completion at the Lawrence Livermore nuclear weapons lab in Northern California.

But a spending plan for energy and water projects approved Thursday by the Senate Appropriations Committee would shut off further construction money for the project, leaving it with just the four laser beams now in place.

Sen. Pete Domenici (news, bio, voting record), R-N.M., complained that ballooning costs on the project, called the National Ignition Facility, are a drain on other programs for maintaining the nation's nuclear arsenal. New Mexico is home to the nation's two other nuclear weapons labs, Sandia and Los Alamos.

"NIF construction must wait until additional resources can be found to balance the needs between support of the stockpile and the single-minded desire to build NIF," said Domenici, who chairs both the Energy Committee and the Appropriations Committee's energy and water subcommittee.

He contended that even with just four beams, the device remains the world's most powerful laser and "is capable of performing many useful experiments."

The project is now scheduled for completion in 2009. Supporters said it's as good as dead because without more lasers it cannot reach fusion ignition — the hoped-for energy release.

"The whole point is to achieve ignition. That's why it's called a National Ignition Facility," said Lawrence Livermore spokesman Bob Hirschfeld.

Achieving fusion ignition would allow nuclear weapons scientists to study the performance and readiness of the country's aging nuclear arsenal without actually detonating a nuclear device.

President Bush's 2006 budget proposal requested $141 million for NIF construction. The House agreed to that figure but the Senate Appropriations Committee eliminated it entirely Thursday, leaving a few funds for other program elements.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (news, bio, voting record), D-Calif., said she hopes to get some of the money restored when House and Senate negotiators meet later in the year put together the final bill for sending to Bush.

"The NIF is almost there. They've done all the experiments, they're almost there. It would be a total waste" to stop the program now, Feinstein said.

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