Although established soon after the first Russian atomic bomb exploded in 1949, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California long ago expanded beyond its initial arms focus to research ranging from geology to astronomy. But it's the weapons work that remains most prominent and has provoked the most debate. Now Livermore is being forced to confront dissent on its campus.
Three public-interest groups have unfurled two giant posters in the visitors center, inviting the public and scientists to ponder the perils of the lab's mission. All are West Coast based: San Francisco Bay Area Physicians for Social Responsibility, Western States Legal Foundation, and Tri-Valley CAREs, founded in 1983 specifically out of concern regarding nuclear weapons research at national labs. The organizations are benefiting from a 1985 court ruling ordering Livermore to set aside room for "alternative viewpoints" in its publicly funded space.
One poster, of a bomb in a skull, advises: "Your health is a terrible thing to waste. Livermore Lab has released a million curies of radiation locally." The other skull depicts the target chamber of the controversial National Ignition Facility (which is designed to aid future bomb design) and warns: "Nuclear weapons science? Your mind is a terrible thing to waste."
"We believe this display will encourage more scientists to leave the project," says Marylia Kelley of Tri-Valley CAREs, explaining one goal of the campaign.
Livermore spokesperson Susan Houghton says the Tri-Valley group members are "entitled to their opinion. We don't validate or verify any of their allegations." Nonetheless, she adds, "if you look beyond the headline the facts don't support it. We've had two [radiation] incidents, in the '60s and '70s, that were both below the allowable limits at the time." The groups added up emissions from both, she says, "to create a sexy number."