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This Is America's Most Top Secret Volleyball Court

No facility is more important at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, the nuclear weapons research facility, than the so-called "Superblock." Situated at the heart of the 820-acre complex, the Superblock handles the facility's plutonium, a key component in nuclear weapons. The facility is protected by a mesh fence to guard against airplanes, ultra-thick walls, and Gatling guns.

But one recently spotted feature at the Superblock probably isn't part of those security arrangements. Someone -- it's unclear who -- has added a beach volleyball court inside its premises.

That volleyball court is clearly visible in satellite footage of the facility. Note the patch of sand in the lower right-hand corner:


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Here's a closer a view of that satellite footage. It's unmistakably a volleyball court:

It's a Strangelovian addition to the facility responsible for America's deadliest nuclear materials. Unless the volleyball court is someone's strange idea of a decorative feature, the plant's scientists could be handling materials used in weapons capable of annihilating millions of people one hour, only to be playing beach volleyball the next.

The facility has been the center of some controversy in the past. In 2008, a commando team posing as terrorists breached the Superblock and were able to reach a mock payload of fissile material. The exercise highlighted what the facility's critics describe as the massive danger of storing nuclear materials at a base with some 7 million people within a 50-mile radius of it.

Those critics probably aren't going to be comforted by the addition of that volleyball court.

Update, 4 p.m. 12/4/13:

Lynda Seaver, a spokesperson for Lawrence Livermore, emails with an update about the court:

Yes it is a volleyball court. In fact, the Lab has several sport courts throughout the facility, as do many labs and R&D institutions, for recreational use during lunchtime. Employees enjoy these facilities and consider them a nice work/life balance. In the case of the Superblock, security is quite rigorous getting in and out and as a result many employees assigned there would rather stay inside the area during lunch.

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Chinese Chortle at U.S. Request to Scrap Controversial Air Defense Zone

The United States wants China to pull back from its gambit to try to rewrite the East China Sea's status quo, but the Chinese are having none of it. On Dec. 2, the U.S. State Department said China's newly-declared air defense identification zone (ADIZ), a California-sized swath over the East China Sea that includes a disputed island chain the Chinese call the Diaoyu and the Japanese call the Senkaku, has "caused confusion and increased the risk of accidents." U.S. Vice President Joe Biden sounded a similar warning while in Tokyo, before departing for Beijing this week. 

Chinese have heard this argument before, and they are still not convinced. On Nov. 28, a spokesperson for China's Ministry of National Defense responded to a call from Japanese politicians demanding the same thing. After noting that Japan's own ADIZ was established in 1969, the spokesperson added, with a good dollop of sarcasm, "If we are talking about rescinding, then we kindly ask Japan to rescind Japan's own ADIZ first. China will consider [rescinding] in another 44 years." Xinhua, China's state-run news agency, published a Dec. 3 editorial that took a similar tone, accusing the government of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of "pretending to be an innocent little bunny, exaggerating the threat, and spreading fear immediately after China declared the ADIZ."

Online, the sentiment has been even sharper. In response to the U.S. and Japanese contention that China's ADIZ is "unacceptable," one user of Sina Weibo, China's Twitter, asked, "Why are the ADIZs of Japan, the United States, and Korea acceptable?" Another sneered, "Chinese people also strongly urge Japan to remodel the Yasukuni Shrine into a toilet." (Yasukuni Shrine honors many Japanese war dead, including some World War II war criminals who operated in China.)

Many online comments seem to reflect a belief that China is engaged in an elaborate geopolitical dance with its rivals. One Weibo user noted that the two B-52 fighter jets the United States sent into China's ADIZ on Nov. 26 to flout the zone were unarmed, commenting that the action, and China's declaration of the ADIZ, "is posturing." He added that the real game "is being played behind the scenes" and "both parties understand where the boundaries are." Another sensed weakness in the United States for urging its private airlines to comply with China's ADIZ procedures, when Japan had not done the same: "The United States has sold out Japan halfway already. The Americans are pragmatists, and eventually they will accept the reality on the ground."

But mistakes can happen: In 2001, a U.S. spy plane flying 70 miles away from Chinese borders collided with a People's Liberation Army fighter jet, killing the Chinese pilot and setting off a diplomatic crisis. 

If something similar were to happen, Chinese President Xi Jinping would likely find strong grassroots support from netizens, who see the ADIZ as a stand against hostile foreign forces. One Weibo user gushed, "This generation of leaders is so daring and capable. They are tackling corruption domestically, and they have stopped being cowards in the international arena. Applause." Another agreed, "To hell with the United States and Japan! We may have objections about our government, but that's a domestic matter. On issues of international affairs, I support the government without reservation. Finally, after so many years, we see a strong China!" 

One way or another, U.S. diplomats and military personnel will have to reckon with this strain of defiance. Chinese leaders are responsive to public opinion, and, to some extent, beholden to it: Stronger objections from outsiders may have the unintended effect of forcing the Chinese government to dig in its heels to accommodate rising nationalism at home. The United States may still be able to get China to retrench, but it will have to rely on more than its persuasive powers alone. 

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