While the University of Texas and the University of California arm to fight each other for a $60 million contract to run Los Alamos National Laboratory nuclear weapons research and development facility, peace advocates say the competition is misdirected and the debate should focus instead on the danger of developing weapons of mass destruction.
“The university, especially a public university, has no place contributing to the development of nuclear weapons,” said Chelsea Collonge, UC Berkeley student with the statewide Coalition to Demilitarize UC. “It undermines our academic integrity.”
University participation sugarcoats the labs’ weapons work, creating a “fig leaf of academic respectability,” said Jackie Cabasso, executive director of Oakland-based Western States Legal Foundation.
Nonetheless, UC and UT are putting together “dream teams.” UC will partner with San Francisco-based Bechtel National, Inc. BWX Technologies, Inc. of Lynchburg, Va., “the nation’s premier manager of complex, high-consequence nuclear and national security operations,” and Washington Group International, of Boise, Idaho, will also be part of the mix, according to a UC press statement.
The University of Texas lineup includes major partner Lockheed Martin, with the possible collaboration of Texas A&M and other universities. Southern California-based defense contractor Northrop Grumman Corporation said it would also bid on the contract.
UC’s ties to the Los Alamos, New Mexico lab were forged in 1943 when the lab was founded with a singular purpose—to create the atom bomb. Because of a series of highly publicized security lapses and management gaffes over the last few years, the Department of Energy, which owns the labs, announced in the spring of 2003 that lab management would go out to competitive bid.
The university oversees two other labs: the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, founded in 1931, and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, founded in 1952. Competitive bidding for LLNL management will take place next year. UC recently won a five-year contract to continue to run the Berkeley lab.
Competitors Suit Up
Underscoring that final bid specifications are not yet available and that until they are, the university will not make a final determination on whether it will vie for the contract, UC spokesperson Chris Harrington claimed that the UC-Bechtel team is the top contender.
“University management brings strong science and technology work,” compatible with the university’s mission of contributing to the safety and security of the nation, he said, explaining that he could not detail the advantages of the UC-Bechtel partnership due to the nature of the competition. The team effort will be led by Michael R. Anatasio, now head of the Livermore labs.
Bechtel National, Inc., the Bechtel division proposed to partner with UC, brings knowledge of national security, intelligence and defense to the partnership. BNI’s experience includes developing technologies to fight terrorism, monitoring the consequences of terrorist acts, designing emergency response programs, and training military and civilian responders, according to a UC press statement.
While both Bechtel and UC spokespeople declined to quantify costs associated with preparing a bid, the UT Board of Regents voted to budget $1.2 million for preparing a proposal. Harrington said UC’s outlay would come from the lab’s budget, kept separate from other university funds.
Republican Sen. Pete Domenici of New Mexico was among those who have stood up to support the UC-Bechtel partnership.
“The University of California has provided a solid science background to Los Alamos, as well as a highly regarded academic foundation,” he said in a statement. “By partnering with a group headed by Bechtel National, UC is bringing a strong management team with extensive experience managing challenging projects on board.”
Asked to comment on the competition, Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Oakland, chose to address only the question of reducing weaponry.
“For me, the most critical issue is fundamentally changing U.S. nuclear weapons policies, and I will continue to work in Congress to end the development of nuclear weapons, to continue to reduce the size of our arsenal and to foster nonproliferation programs that will dismantle existing weapons and stop the spread of weapons technology,” she said in an e-mail.
University of Texas Chancellor Mark Yudof said the UT-Lockheed team is the strongest.
“For the first time since the creation of Los Alamos, the Department of Energy is challenging American industry and academia to come forward with their best guidance about how its vital work can be done better and more safely,” he said. “There may be industrial bidders who could do the job alone, but without access to the best minds in academia, they could not do it as well….We believe we have the winning combination.”
Peace groups organize
The bidders, however, face opposition from peace advocates in Texas, New Mexico and California. Pedro De La Torre, III, a graduating UT senior who speaks for UT Watch, a group opposing university involvement running the lab, said the university is getting into a “dysfunctional” situation where there are accidents and security breeches. “It would be taking on a liability.”
It would be wrong for the university to be responsible for nuclear proliferation, when the U.S. should be reducing its nuclear stockpile, De La Torre said.
“The existence of these weapons is a security threat,” he said. University Democrats, Icon Media and Peace Action Texas also oppose UT’s bid to run the lab.
In California the Coalition to Demilitarize UC focuses its opposition, in part, on the university’s link with profit-making corporations.
“The UC partnership with Bechtel, BWXT, and Washington International binds the university to industrial corporations that rely on the further militarization and nuclearization of our planet for their profit and power,” CDUC said in a press statement. Further, CDUC spokesperson Collonge said she fears, with the addition of Bechtel and the profit-making incentive, the lab will “design a whole new generation of weapons.”
The statewide CDUC is working with UC Nuclear Free, Fiat Pax, Berkeley Watch, Tri-Valley CAREs, and coordinates with New Mexico-based Los Alamos Study Group and Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety to bring students to the UC Regents meeting in San Francisco on Wednesday, where the lab competition will be discussed.
“It’s time to get UC out of the nuclear weapons business,” the CDUC statement advised.
Harrington bristled at the implications. “The university is not in the weapons business,” he said. “It is in the business of managing three labs on behalf of the United States. Let’s not make it ‘weapons business.’”
The labs’ charge goes “far beyond nuclear weapons work,” including cutting edge research on the Human Genome, HIV, anthrax and more, he added.
Cabasso, whose organization, Western States Legal Foundation, recently issued a report, “Up For Sale: Bidding for Management of the Nuclear Weapons Labs” (www.wslfweb.org) said university work at the labs offers a cover for academicians to obfuscate their weapons work and “to tell themselves they are working at an institution of higher learning.”
Pointing to corporate-run Sandia Labs, she said former director Paul Robinson was more straightforward, “proudly proclaiming” they were working on weapons of mass destruction. (Robinson left Sandia in April to help Lockheed prepare its bid to manage the Los Alamos lab with UT; Lockheed manages Sandia.)
Pratap Chatterjee, author of Iraq, Inc. and program director at CorpWatch in Oakland, has studied Bechtel and agrees that the corporation is an expert in the nuclear weapons business. But, like Cabasso, Chatterjee says asking which competitor is best is missing the point.
“Should we be doing nuclear testing at all? We should be shutting them down,” Chatterjee said.
University equals transparency
Harrington argued that university oversight of the labs creates transparency and a venue for public input. “The university is subject to open meeting laws,” he said. “We’re very transparent in what we do at the labs.”
Chatterjee and Cabasso dispute this. Believing that the university is more transparent is part of the conventional wisdom, Cabasso said. “It hasn’t been true in the past 50 years. There’s an illusion of transparency, openness, but the ability to inform the public has been nil.”
Public and private entities are either accountable or they are not, Chatterjee said.
“The question is, is accountability enforceable?” he asked. “A government entity can be completely accountable or it can abuse human rights and rip off customers—a private entity can do so also.”
There is the added potential that, with a private for-profit partner, the profit incentive will drive up costs without public scrutiny, Chatterjee said, noting, “Bechtel is a privately-held company. It does not have to reveal how much profit it makes….We have no idea what happens inside Bechtel.”
Lockheed, a publicly-held corporation, might be “slightly more transparent,” Chatterjee said.
Mike Kidder, spokesperson for Bechtel, said the transparency argument is a non sequitur. “Everyone is as transparent (as the next entity) and must meet the same requirements.”
De La Torre of Texas says running the labs diminishes the university’s prestige and Michael Coffey of UC Nuclear Free agrees: “The university’s reputation is stained by that relationship (with nuclear weapons).”
But spokespeople for both teams competing to manage the labs say just the opposite, citing duty to country as the primary reason for their involvement. UC manages the labs “as a public service,” Harrington said.
Similarly, James R. Huffines, chairman of the UT Board of Regents argued: “The work of Los Alamos is fundamental to our national security. As one of the finest institutions in the country, we have a duty to pursue this proposal.”
The UC Regents are scheduled to address the issue at their meeting Wed., 10 a.m., UCSF, 3333 California St., San Franscisco