LIVERMORE — A year ago, President Bush asked the director of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory to find out how long it would take to restart nuclear test explosions.
The Bush administration has said it has no interest in ending the nine-year moratorium, but won’t rule it out if more bomb tests are needed to maintain the reliability and safety of the nation’s nuclear stockpile, particularly as it is reduced to about 2,000 weapons.
C. Bruce Tarter, who is stepping down this week, figured out that it would take 1-3 years, but he said he also doesn’t expect Bush to resume the tests.
Tarter told The Associated Press that the only reasons he sees for more nuclear explosions would be either a dramatic change in leadership in Russia, China or other nuclear powers, or a technical surprise in the current stockpile.
“At this point, my own judgment is that we are unlikely to resume nuclear testing,” he said this week. “There are no technical circumstances yet that would require us to do so.”
The final report about the logistics of resuming tests is not expected to be ready for a few more months, said Tarter, whose replacement as lab leader is expected to be named Friday.
On Thursday, Lisa Cutler, a spokeswoman for the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration, said Tarter’s assessment is reasonable.
“Nothing has changed. We have no indication that the White House is ready to move toward testing,” she said.
Interviewed on the roof of his highly secure office overlooking the Livermore campus and the browning East Bay hills, Tarter said he’s enjoyed his tenure at the head of the lab. But he said Livermore is at a turning point now, and at 62, he said he simply lacks the energy to put in another four or five years to carry it into its new era.
Tarter’s energy has been legendary at the lab. Not only does he work long days, but each year he challenges — and beats — his senior managers in a road race.
“I think it’s healthy to do something new every five or six years,” said Tarter, who has been at the lab since 1967.
During his past seven years as director, Tarter led the lab’s transition from Cold War-era nuclear weapons development to a wide range of research, both for military uses and such non-defense technologies as the world’s most accurate lathe, built to form large, irregularly shaped mirrors for experimental lasers, and a mechanical truck stopping device designed to stop a stolen or hijacked truck.
Tarter’s critics, including many anti-nuclear weapons activists, say he still guided the lab toward too much weapons research and development.
“The weapons program is simply not needed anymore at Livermore,” said Christopher Paine of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “It’s just a waste of taxpayer dollars.”
During his tenure, Tarter took his biggest hits for time and cost overruns in the construction of a huge laser that will be used to help monitor and maintain nuclear weapons without actual bomb tests.
That $3.48 billion project has suffered delays and spiraling costs since the Department of Energy first set its budget at $1.1 billion nearly five years ago. The project, which Tarter said is “back on track,” is now scheduled to be fully operational by 2008.
“Bruce has been an excellent leader during a tumultuous time,” said John McTague, University of California Vice President for Laboratory Management. “The range of complex issues he has encountered and dealt with effectively is truly remarkable.”
Tarter said he hopes to remain at the lab after stepping down, both to assist the new director and take on several smaller projects, including preparing for the lab’s 50th anniversary this fall.
But he laughed when asked if he had another three decades left to go, like his colleague down the hall, renowned physicist Edward Teller, or “E.T.” as they call him, who a t 95 is still coming in to the office two days a week.
“He’s an amazing man,” said Tarter. “I’ll just be glad to be around.”