Judge Issues Injunction Against DOE's National Ignition Facility
R. Winn Hardin
WASHINGTON -- In December 1996, Thomas Cochran, director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, smelled something foul about the National Academy of Sciences' technical review of the proposed $1.1 billion National Ignition Facility. Three months later, a federal judge agreed.
On March 5, Federal District Court Judge Paul Friedman issued an injunction against the Department of Energy, stopping the agency from using the National Academy of Sciences' report on the technical feasibility of the National Ignition Facility. The injunction is based on concerns that the closed-door technical review of the facility might have violated the Federal Advisory Committee Act, which requires all advisory boards funded by the federal government to make their deliberations public.
The National Ignition Facility would use extremely high-power lasers to implode a millimeter-size nugget of hydrogen, creating a controlled nuclear explosion. Opponents of the project are not only concerned about the idea of nuclear tests, but some scientists familiar with the project fear that the government will spend a huge amount of money on a relatively untested fusion technique.
In addition, Cochran has previously alleged that the review board was biased, comprising a majority of members with ties to either the Department of Energy or the National Ignition Facility project.
But despite the concerns of Cochran and his cohorts -- the Tri-Valley Citizens Against a Radioactive Environment and the Western States Legal Foundation -- neither the National Academy of Sciences review committee nor its report are included in the injunction. In remarks to both plaintiffs and defendants, Friedman said that including the National Academy of Sciences would violate the group's first amendment right to free speech.
Ironically, it was a recent judgment against a sister group of the National Academy of Sciences that paved the way for the injunction. In January, the federal courts found the National Research Council, an affiliate of the National Academy of Sciences, guilty of violating the advisory act during deliberations on new guidelines for the use of laboratory animals.
William Colglazier, executive director of the National Academy of Sciences, said he felt the two groups who filed the suits were in opposition with the government's objectives, and not the academy per se. "That any agencies are trying to muzzle us is truly incredible," said Colglazier, adding that his group plans to take both cases to the Supreme Court if necessary to protect its credibility. "Our credibility is based on the fact that we do these studies independently of the government. ... Our credibility could potentially be seriously compromised [if the judgment stands]," he said.
An appeals court gave animal rights groups until March 19 to respond to the National Research Council's appeal request.
Behind the scenes, however, the injunction has had little effect on the construction of the National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. The day after the report was given to the Department of Energy declassification review committee, the agency said it would proceed immediately with site-clearing preparations.
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