The University of Nuclear Bombs 

The University of California is once again bidding to manage Los Alamos nuclear weapons lab at a time when the threat of nuclear war is rising.

  • Illustration by Brian Breneman

When Nobu Hanaoka was 8 months old, the city where he lived and played was consumed by a fiery hell. On Aug. 9, 1945, a U.S. warplane released an atomic bomb over Nagasaki, Japan. The blast, heat, fire, and radiation from the bomb killed 40,000 people almost instantaneously. Roughly 70,000 died by year's end. Three days prior, the U.S. military had also exploded an atomic bomb over Hiroshima. Those killed immediately numbered some 90,000. Those dying by the end of 1945 numbered some 140,000.

Now 73, Hanaoka was too young to remember the blast. But he vividly recalls the sickness and frailty that overcame his mother and sister, who — like tens of thousands of others — died more slowly due to radiation exposure. They both died from leukemia when Hanaoka was 5 years old. "As far back as I can remember, they were both in bed looking very pale," recalled Hanaoka, in a recent interview.

After immigrating to the Bay Area, Hanaoka studied at the Berkeley Theological Union and became a reverend at a United Methodist church in Albany. He also became an outspoken proponent of nuclear disarmament. "We all have to work together to eliminate nuclear weapons altogether," said Hanaoka, who now lives in Daly City.

The atomic bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Rev. Hanaoka's hometown of Nagasaki — the only two nuclear weapons ever unleashed in warfare — are also part of a dark history of the University of California. The Berkeley campus was instrumental in developing both weapons: In 1941, in an experiment inside of Gilman Hall, Cal chemist Glenn Seaborg discovered the substance that fueled the destruction of Nagasaki — plutonium. And later that year, Berkeley Radiation Laboratory physicists developed a new electromagnetic process for splitting highly enriched uranium 235 from naturally occurring uranium, using a device — named for its university of origin — known as a "Calutron." In short order, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers used the Calutron as a model for a sprawling production facility near Oak Ridge, Tenn., which produced the raw materials that fueled the destruction of Hiroshima.

But the University of California's crowning role was as the administrator of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, a secretive compound constructed in 1943 on a remote mesa in northern New Mexico. Los Alamos was the central hub in an unprecedented mobilization of the U.S. scientific brainpower, known as the "Manhattan Project." More than 130,000 people labored in far-flung locations as part of the effort, which commanded more than 40 percent of the nation's electrical power at its height and cost nearly $25 billion in inflation-adjusted dollars.

Los Alamos is where the weapons were conceptualized, as well as where they were designed and assembled. It is also one of the places where Big Science — a union of universities, industry, and the military — was first cemented.

Following the war, as the United States and other industrialized nations allocated unprecedented funds for scientific research, and despite initial misgivings among some members of the UC Board of Regents, the University of California continued managing Los Alamos, even as it developed new generations of nuclear bombs far more destructive than those that obliterated the two Japanese cities.

In 1952, the University of California also helped create a second national nuclear weapons laboratory in the East Bay: the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Collectively, these two UC-administered laboratories have researched and developed the core physical package of every nuclear warhead the United States has ever deployed.

But the University of California's 75-year association with Los Alamos is no longer assured. Last year, the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) put the Los Alamos management contract up for a competitive bid for only the second time in history. The current contract is set to expire next year, and several universities and consortiums — including the University of Texas and a partnership between Purdue University and multinational construction and engineering giant Bechtel Corporation — are bidding for the new five-year contract with a performance-based extension of up to five additional years.

For the vast majority of Los Alamos' history, the University of California was its exclusive manager. Since 2006, the UC has managed the nuclear weapons labs as part of for-profit partnerships with Bechtel and two other corporate entities.

At a Nov. 15 meeting in San Francisco, the UC Board of Regents voted unanimously to submit a bid for the Los Alamos management contract — but this time without the UC's existing business partners. "We've been there since the very beginning," said UC Regent Norman Pattiz, who resigned two months later after revelations that he sexually harassed a female employee of his media company. "NNSA is a tough, demanding customer, but the work to be done at Los Alamos is too important for the university to walk away from."

Over the years, Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore labs have touted their work in a variety of civilian programs, including renewable energy research, but nuclear weapons maintenance and development remains the overarching focus of each facility. In fiscal year 2016, for example, Los Alamos received $1.602 billion for nuclear weapons development and maintenance from the NNSA, comprising 65 percent of its budget overall.

If the UC wins the contract this year and resumes its former longtime role as Los Alamos' sole manager, it means operations of the lab will fall under the authority of the UC Regents and the UC Office of the President. It also means the regents and UC President Janet Napolitano will select the leadership of the lab, while continuing to steer a significant portion of the university's vast scientific resources into the lab's orbit. And it means that every weapons designer's paycheck will come from the University of California.


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