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Laser project to safeguard U.S. nuclear weapons

The Clinton administration wants, starting in 2002, to build a $1-billion laser system for researching a new source of energy and keeping U.S. nuclear weapons safe.

Anti-nuclear groups criticized the proposal for the world's biggest laser, saying they feared it could undermine U.S. nuclear non-proliferation objectives.

The goal of the laser system would be to create a so-called fusion reaction that produced more energy than is consumed as well as studying bomb reliability.

Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary announced the plan to build the laser facility to appreciative workers at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, a nuclear weapons facility searching for a post-Cold War role.

O'Leary said her preference was to build the proposed National Ignition Facility at the Livermore laboratory, 40 miles southeast of San Francisco. However, other sites also will be explored.

Congress has the last word on the facility, which would cost nearly $1-billion to build and $800-million to operate over 15 years.

The National Ignition Facility would be larger than a sports stadium and contain 192 laser beams directed on a tiny ball bearing-sized capsule containing hydrogen.

Temperatures in the fuel capsule could reach 100-million degrees and pressures could build to 100-billion times that of Earth's atmosphere.

The United States has a moratorium on nuclear weapons testing. Officials say the facility would provide an alternative means of studying the reliability of nuclear bombs, further understanding of fusion energy and enable researchers to explore conditions similar to those at the center of the sun.