Promising to attract some of the best scientific minds in the country, the UC Board of Regents voted Thursday to compete for the management of the Department of Energy’s nuclear weapons research and development laboratories in Los Alamos, New Mexico in partnership with Bechtel National, Inc.
The only regent voting in opposition was Gary Novack, UC Alumni Association vice president.
The university’s drive to continue managing the lab, which gave birth to the atomic bomb, was met by the sometimes raucous opposition of about four dozen students and community activists who showed up at an 8 a.m. subcommittee meeting on Wednesday at the Laurel Heights campus in San Francisco.
After 23 of them were permitted to voice their concerns for 90 seconds each, the activists vented their frustration by chanting and heckling the regents, who left the meeting room and were replaced by a row of armed police. Given the choice to leave or be arrested, the group agreed to observe the regents’ deliberations quietly.
At issue was DOE’s call for competitive bids to manage the Los Alamos National Laboratory. The university has had a no-bid contract to manage the facility since 1943, but DOE revised its contract procedures after recent security breeches. The final requirements for the competition were announced last week; proposals must be submitted by July 19. It is expected that a University of Texas-Lockheed team will also compete.
Students from the Coalition to Demilitarize UC and peace advocates said weapons development was at odds with the educational mission of the university. UC Berkeley graduate student Josh Kearns said he suspected that in addition to research and development, “UC will be overseeing the manufacturing of nuclear weapons.”
The coalition condemned the partnership with BNI, a division of the San Francisco-based Bechtel Group. Calling the corporation a “war profiteer” for its lucrative contract work in Iraq, Juan Reardon of UC Santa Cruz, questioned the “moral implications of work with Bechtel.”
Activists from Tri-Valley Cares addressed the health and safety of employees and communities surrounding the labs, pointing to worker lawsuits claiming chemical exposure. They also asked the university to ensure workers’ rights to organize and “whistleblower” protections.
Lab subcommittee members posed questions to Michael Anastasio, who will lead the UC-Bechtel team, and to representatives from BNI and subcontractors BWX Technologies and Washington Group International. Like the students, several regents thought the labs might be preparing to manufacture nuclear weapons. Regent Richard Blum of Blum Capital Partners wanted to be sure they wouldn’t be violating international treaties or “spurring a new nuclear arms race.”
Anastasio assured Blum that Congress regulates nuclear weapons development, so that any change in the Los Alamos mission would have to come directly from the lawmakers.
Students charged that Blum, husband of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, should not vote because he is vice chair of URS Corp., which does business with Los Alamos. UC’s general council on Thursday, however, ruled out a conflict of interest and allowed Blum to vote.
Regents also voiced concern for lab employees, who will cease to be UC staff—the university and Bechtel will form a new corporation—and whose pensions are part of the UC system. Regents Chair Gerald Parsky of the Aurora Capital Group cautioned, “There are a number of issues that need to be worked out.”
Several of the regents lauded the unique working conditions for scientists at Los Alamos. “The strength is in the environment of academic freedom. This doesn’t exist in the corporate environment,” Parsky said.
The “open inquiry of science sets a tone for employees” which allows the university to attract “some of the best scientists,” Anastasio said.
However Novack, the only regent to oppose the competition, argued that the university’s focus should be on academics and improving K-12 education. “The downsides outweigh the upsides,” he said.
Non-voting Regent Richard Rominger, secretary of UC’s Alumni Association, voiced concern that the labs are an “additional distraction from the core mission of the university.”
Regents emphasized they did not manage the labs for money, even though the fee paid to the new management team could be as high as $79 million, more than eight times the fees UC had been receiving.
“It’s clear that UC does not benefit,” said George Blumenthal, chair of the faculty council. All UC fees are put back into the labs. “Service to the country is the university’s mission.”
Regent Peter Preuss, of the Preuss Foundation, added, “Bidding for this contract is our duty. The nation needs us to do this job.”
“We live in a very dangerous world. Nuclear weapons could be in the hands of people who we wish didn’t have them,” such as Iran and North Korea, said Regent Blum, who added that the work of the labs “will keep us safe, so we can sit here and protest.”
Regent David Lee of San Jose further underscored the labs’ mission, by saying, “When we have stronger weapons, people listen to us.”