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— With war brewing in the Middle East and new domestic terror strikes threatened, America is battening down the hatches. Targets are being hardened, nuclear power plants are under close watch, and all manner of precautions are being taken to safeguard dangerous nuclear materials from foreign attack. A key concern is in La Jolla, where one of the nation's most prominent defense contractors is harboring a tidy cache of plutonium and uranium, enough to cause thousands of cancer cases if terrorists ever managed to make off with the material or to blow up the containment building. Once alone on a finger canyon, the site, though surrounded by a security fence, is crowded by biotechnology research buildings and busy parking lots.

Two months before the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, security at the site was beefed up under a plan approved by the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which today maintains that those and other top-secret precautions are adequate to protect the nuclear waste, left over from almost 40 years of reactor research.

But others familiar with the situation are not so sanguine about the pre-9/11 security plan and believe that National Guard troops may be necessary to ring the site in case of war and its aftermath. The location, they maintain, may be vulnerable from the air. In the end, these sources say, safety will only be guaranteed when the nuclear material is removed.

The location is on the outer perimeter of the industrial campus of General Atomics, maker of the Predator, the unmanned aerial vehicle that has played a conspicuous role in Bosnia, Afghanistan, and now, with the approach of full-scale war against Saddam Hussein, in Iraq. The Predator has been used as an airborne intelligence-gathering platform, equipped with television cameras to monitor military maneuvers and troop buildups. But it has a more lethal role.

Armed with Hellfire missiles by the CIA, the Predator has been responsible for killing at least a dozen alleged al-Qaeda operatives, including a top leader, Qaed Salim Sinan al-Harethi, and five others in a strike last November that vaporized their car as it drove down a remote road in Yemen. Also reported killed in that attack was Kamal Dirwish, an American citizen identified by the Bush administration as the head of an alleged al-Qaeda sleeper cell in Buffalo, New York. Six alleged members of that cell were subsequently arrested by the FBI, which said it couldn't rule out that others might still be on the loose.

Besides Predator, General Atomics contracts with the Department of Defense to provide the government with Navy power systems, guidance devices, and computer integration. It owns uranium mines in Australia, does research for the U.S. government's nuclear fusion project, and is involved in top-secret "black budget" projects for the Pentagon. The company is owned by two wealthy brothers, Air Force veterans with close ties to the CIA, Linden and Neal Blue, who acquired it from Chevron Oil in 1986, when it was called GA Technologies. But 40 years before that, the firm, which started life in the mid-1950s as General Atomics, was one of America's nuclear pioneers.

GA and its portfolio of nuclear power ventures was the brainchild of physicist Frederic de Hoffman, a Harvard graduate from Vienna, who during World War II played a pivotal role in the development of the first atomic bomb at Los Alamos. After the war he went to work for the new Atomic Energy Commission, set up by the U.S. government to oversee nuclear development. In 1955, he was recruited by John Jay Hopkins, chairman of General Dynamics, the largest defense contractor in America, which was seeking to branch into atomic energy.

After its founding in July of that year, GA went looking for a headquarters and found it in San Diego after Mayor Charles C. Dail, always eager for new industry, offered the company 320 acres of city-owned land on Torrey Pines Mesa, just west of the Torrey Pines state park. In the fall of 1956, city voters approved Proposition H, which formalized the transfer, by a 6-1 margin.

In June 1959, the new General Atomics complex, named the John Jay Hopkins Laboratory for Pure and Applied Science, was officially dedicated. Newspaper publisher Jim Copley lauded the event with a special section in the Sunday edition of his San Diego Union. "Atoms for Peace," said one headline. "The Atom at Work for Better Living," said another. "Progress is Goal of the GA Team and its Lab Reflects this Purpose," said yet another. Seventy-five-year-old Danish quantum physicist Niels Bohr, Nobel laureate and a father of the Manhattan Project who keynoted the ceremony, was said to "bestride the world of atomic physics like a shy colossus."

In an article under his byline, de Hoffmann extolled the benefits of atomic energy and described for readers the laboratory's first invention; the TRIGA nuclear reactor, "named for training, research and isotopes -- the GA is for General Atomics."

Most of the hoped-for breakthroughs touted by de Hoffmann -- including Project Orion, a spaceship to Mars to be powered by detonating a series of atomic bombs behind the craft -- fell by the wayside, derailed by cost overruns, failures of technology, and, in the case of the nuclear rocket ship, fear of atmospheric fallout. Many of General Atomics' brave schemes to commercialize the atom also turned out to be embarrassing duds.

But the firm lived on as a center for federally funded nuclear and defense research and development. The company was unloaded by General Dynamics, which sold it to Gulf Oil. It was inherited by Chevron Oil in a merger with Gulf before winding up in the hands of the Blue brothers, who diversified from the company's traditional nuclear businesses by buying the rights to the Predator from the bankrupt Israeli national who invented the craft. The company's board of directors was populated with retired CIA operatives and old Department of Defense hands such as ex-defense secretary Harold Brown.

Meanwhile, the reactor had taken on a life of its own. Developed by Los Alamos veterans Edward Teller and Freeman Dyson beginning in 1956, when GA was still headquartered in an old schoolhouse near Lindbergh Field, the reactor relied on uranium fuel alloys to control its nuclear reaction. Not designed to produce electricity, it turned out specialty products, such as medical isotopes, and was also employed by academics in physics research. By 1958, the first of more than 65 reactors to be eventually built by GA was sold.

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