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 Los Alamos National Laboratory. - COURTESY OF THE U.S. DEPARTMENT OF ENERGY
  • Courtesy of the U.S. Department of Energy
  • Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Watchdog groups have differing views on the UC's role in overseeing such activities. Scott Kovac, operations and research director of Nuke Watch of New Mexico, opposes the current corporate-university consortium but said he would support a return to management by the UC sans its current corporate partners. "University management makes more sense," he said. "The large corporate entities at Los Alamos have had a lot less transparency than the UC did as sole manager."

UC Office of the President spokesperson Stephanie Beechem said in a statement to the Express that the University of California is well-suited to manage the labs because it "stands apart as a global leader in the management and operations of complex scientific organizations." She added, "The university is strongly committed to Los Alamos' scientific and technological excellence, driving the lab's culture of operational excellence, and ensuring the continued high quality and integrity of its critical national security missions."

NNSA officials declined to answer questions about the nuclear weapons labs, instead directing the Express to the federal agency's website.

Mello of the Los Alamos Study Group argued that, overall, if the federal government were to manage the weapons labs, it would bring greater transparency and reform than contracting management to universities or corporations. But a bigger question, he said, is whether the labs should exist at all. He said the weapons labs have consistently fended off attempts to bring more oversight and accountability to their operations.

"The resistance of the laboratories to reform is so deep-seated, and their power so great, that it becomes realistic to question whether they can ever be reformed enough to play a positive role in society," Mello said. "And we have concluded that the labs have no unique role in disarmament, nonproliferation, verification, cleanup, intelligence, or in any other mission that cannot be performed more objectively, cheaper, and better by other institutions."

Earlier this year
, Mello's organization published a 2016 memo prepared by the office of then-Vice President Joe Biden featuring unusual insights into a subject that is typically veiled: the power wielded by the nuclear weapons laboratories.

The memo points, in part, to a relatively recent issue: The increased role of private, for-profit corporations in the nuclear weapons business. At least 96 percent of the NNSA's 2017 budget, for example, went to contractors such as the UC-Bechtel consortiums, Lockheed Martin, and other military-industrial corporations.

"NNSA's contractors have captured the government," the memo read. "Sometimes, leaking into the open, internal lab emails sometimes refer to their 'capture strategy' for NNSA explicitly, and the rest of the government implicitly."

Weapons lab employees have been assigned to key offices in other agencies, such as the U.S. Department of Defense, as well as onto the staffs of key congressmembers who serve on committees that oversee the nuclear weapons budget. "On the staffs of key [Capitol] Hill members and committees, they routinely serve as initial spearheads of lab interests and as defensive bulwarks against administration attempts to change the status quo," the memo read.

But the memo also pointed to the influence the weapons labs have wielded since the dawn of the atomic age. The weapons labs and their managers "may also speak formally to Congress on any issue without agency or presidential interference, and they may be reimbursed for such lobbying under their NNSA contractors," the memo continued, noting that this arrangement has been in place since 1945. "The inherent conflict of interest is codified in law."

In addition to seeking the development of new nuclear warheads, one of the labs' major priorities is to develop new infrastructure. Following the Cold War, the labs used their political clout to secure expanded funding by way of a program called "Stockpile Stewardship" in exchange for supporting President Bill Clinton's proposal to ban nuclear weapons tests. These included a multibillion-dollar infrastructure of supercomputers, laser, and flash X-ray facilities that allow them to conduct "virtual" nuclear tests. They have also continued to detonate an average of 10 so-called "sub-critical" nuclear bombs every year at the Nevada Test Site: explosions involving as many as 3.3 pounds of plutonium that stop just short of inducing a nuclear chain reaction.

And a centerpiece of the $1 trillion modernization program authorized by the Obama administration is the construction of a multibillion-dollar factory to produce new explosive triggers — plutonium pits — for thermonuclear weapons at Los Alamos or in South Carolina. The previous such facility to exist in the United States, at the Rocky Flats Plant, 15 miles northwest of Denver, Colo., was shut down in a 1989 FBI raid, following four decades of carcinogenic releases into nearby communities and environs.

Much of the weapons labs' early power arose from the myth of heroic scientists toiling away to help America win the war — a myth that arose during the Manhattan Project, but which is now contradicted by mountains of evidence that the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were unnecessary from a military standpoint.

The two scientists who wielded the greatest influence in the mid-20th century were both at Berkeley. The Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in the East Bay was originally established in 1952 as a division of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. From its inception, its role was to compete with Los Alamos in the creation of increasingly sophisticated thermonuclear weapons that would become "deliverable" to their targets.


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