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.

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click to enlarge Jacqueline Cabasso argues that the UC's management of the labs legitimizes nuclear weapons. - PHOTO BY ROSA FURNEAUX
  • Photo by Rosa Furneaux
  • Jacqueline Cabasso argues that the UC's management of the labs legitimizes nuclear weapons.

The UC Regents have often described their administration of the weapons labs as a "public service to the nation," arguing that it's better that leaders of an academic institution run the facilities. Proponents of UC management also say the university brings greater transparency to the weapons labs' work than would a strictly private contractor.

The UC's bid for the next weapons lab management contract this year also coincides with President Trump's overheated threats to launch a nuclear attack on North Korea and the administration's plan to boost spending on the nation's nuclear warheads by the largest percentage in a half-century.

Some nuclear disarmament activists say they prefer that the University of California manage the labs by itself, rather than in partnership with Bechtel or other giant corporations. But other critics and activists contend that UC management of the labs bestows a mantle of legitimacy on the development of weapons of unfathomable destructive power that must never again be used.

"The only role the UC really plays is to provide a fig leaf of academic cover to the creation of weapons of mass murder," said Jacqueline Cabasso, executive director of the Oakland-based Western States Legal Foundation, a nuclear disarmament advocacy organization. "On the whole, university management does more harm than good."

The administration of the nuclear weapons complex has also brought the university into an orbit of tremendous power. Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore are multibillion-dollar juggernauts that have shaped the course of some of the world's major geo-political events since the mid-20th century. In addition to harnessing the same physical processes that fuel the sun and stars, these scientists have wielded a political power that has rarely been documented or understood.



In the past year
, the spectacle of a short-tempered, thin-skinned former reality TV star assuming control of the launch codes of the U.S. arsenal of 4,096 deployed nuclear weapons has brought the threat of nuclear annihilation into sharper focus. Donald Trump's administration has adopted policies that harken back to the darkest days of the Cold War, when the United States and the Soviet Union came dangerously close to waging terminal nuclear warfare.

The Trump administration's February "nuclear posture review" pronounced that the United States will retaliate against a non-nuclear and perhaps even non-military attack on U.S. infrastructure — say, a cyberattack — with a nuclear strike that could kill hundreds of thousands, if not millions.

But while Trump's rhetoric on war is alarming, his nuclear weapons policies largely resemble those of previous administrations. "More than anything else, what you find with nuclear weapons policy and programs is incredible consistency, regardless of which party is in power," said Cabasso. "The Trump policies and programs are also very consistent with what came before them, except that now it's like they're on steroids."

Those policy consistencies include prioritizing the long-range funding of nuclear weapons programs, especially at the three largest sites developed for nuclear bomb research during the Manhattan Project and early Cold War: Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore, as well as the Sandia laboratories in New Mexico and California, which makes the non-nuclear components of nuclear bombs.

During the Obama administration, the United States began a massive nuclear "modernization" program, which has put it on course to spend more than $1 trillion by 2040, upgrading every nuclear warhead and delivery system in the U.S. inventory with new capabilities, while greatly expanding the physical footprint of its nuclear weapons laboratories. Part of this vast sum is the NNSA's budget for nuclear warhead development at the three major laboratories.

The Trump administration's fiscal year 2019 budget request also proposes increasing the NNSA's budget — including for similar nuclear warhead upgrades — from $9.3 billion to $11 billion. If enacted, it would be the largest increase in nuclear warhead spending, both percentage-wise and in inflation-corrected dollars, since 1962 — the year of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Greg Mello, executive director of the Albuquerque, N.M.-based disarmament advocacy organization the Los Alamos Study Group, noted that this massive commitment to nuclear weapons maintenance and development is rooted in problems that have been building for several decades.

"More spending on nuclear weapons, in a time of real crisis in our society and especially our environment, reflects heart-breaking, upside-down priorities," Mello said. "It also reflects the depth of corruption to which we are sinking. A cabal of bloated contractors, a small army of well-placed insiders in government, pork-barrel politicians, and captured federal bureaucrats have bullied the Office of Management and Budget into approving a request for far more money than has ever been spent before on warhead design and production, even during the height of the Cold War."

An example of a nuclear modernization program is a new "super fuse" device, developed at Los Alamos, that has made U.S. submarine-based nuclear warheads roughly three times more capable of destroying underground missile silos. If the United States launched a portion of these newly upgraded warheads in a first strike, it could destroy Russia's entire land-based nuclear arsenal, while still retaining most of the U.S.'s submarine-based nuclear arsenal in reserve, wrote physicists for the Federation of American Scientists in March 2017. If Russia attempted to retaliate, it could be reduced to ash.

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