WASHINGTON -- President Clinton ordered the U.S. Department of Energy yesterday to continue operations at all three of the nation's major nuclear weapons labs, rejecting recommendations to phase out nuclear bomb research at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory near San Francisco.
The decision was an outgrowth of Mr. Clinton's announcement last month supporting a comprehensive ban on all future nuclear TC testing, which prompted bomb experts to recommend against any major reduction in weapons research, Energy Department officials said.
The announcement will save more than 3,000 research jobs in the Bay Area community of Livermore, as well as appease senior Pentagon officials who have argued vehemently to preserve Livermore's role in nuclear weapons.
Mr. Clinton's decision was kept under close wraps until yesterday, leaving even Livermore officials in the dark about what was coming. Livermore executive officer Ron Cochran said the lab had worked hard for 18 months to demonstrate that its expertise was still needed. "We are very, very pleased," Mr. Cochran said.
In the aftermath of the Cold War, the nation's nuclear laboratory complex was expected to be sharply curtailed. Mr. Clinton's decision means that the system put in place after World War II will be largely kept intact.
Mr. Clinton said preserving Livermore is essential to ensuring the reliability and safety of the nation's nuclear weapons stockpile, the size of which is classified but estimated at roughly 6,000 bombs.
Weapons experts have warned that a permanent end to underground nuclear testing would create serious doubts about the reliability of bombs as they age. Maintaining a high level of confidence in the bombs will require a massive research program, with competing teams conducting peer review of each other's work, they said. As a result, the Energy Department is planning to spend $40 billion over the next decade on the effort, building high-energy experimental machines and establishing new production lines at the labs to make spare parts for bombs.
"This is the price we pay to forswear nuclear testing," said Energy Secretary Hazel R. O'Leary. "I knew a year ago that it wouldn't be cheap."
The announcement ends speculation about Livermore's future that arose after a high-level commission, chaired by former Motorola Chairman Robert Galvin, earlier this year recommended phasing out the lab's role in nuclear weapons research over a five-year period.
The plan would have transferred many of Livermore's responsibilities to Los Alamos National Laboratory, the facility in New Mexico that has been Livermore's arch rival in weapons technology since the early 1950s.
Ms. O'Leary initially said she planned to "embrace and adopt" a majority of Mr. Galvin's recommendations, but on Monday she said the need for Livermore became clear as the Energy Department and the Pentagon began to examine the consequences of a permanent ban on future weapons testing.
Sandia National Laboratory, which designs the electronic arming mechanisms and other parts for bombs, was not directly affected by the Galvin recommendations. It will continue to operate its two sites in New Mexico and California.
Livermore has 8,014 employees, of whom about 3,020 work on defense and nuclear weapons programs, lab officials said.
About $250 million is spent annually on weapons research at the lab. Ms. O'Leary said that phasing out the lab's weapons work and transferring the functions to Los Alamos would have saved only $50 million a year.
Mr. Clinton's announcement is part of a major administration review of all federal labs. The decision on the Energy Department labs was the first result of that review.
Arms control advocates agreed that continuing Livermore was a necessary concession to the Pentagon to get a permanent ban on nuclear testing, but they termed it an unnecessary expense.