Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory is picture.

This Date in UCSF History: Regents renew contracts for Nuclear Weapons Labs

Friday, September 22, 2017

The UC Board of Regents renewed five-year contracts for two highly controversial nuclear weapons laboratories on Sept. 18, 1987.

The move extends UC management of the US Department of Energy's major nuclear weapons design facilities, located in Livermore, Calif., 60 miles southeast of San Francisco, and in Los Alamos, New Mexico.

Critics say university involvement in the top-secret nuclear facilities is antithetical to the open discussion and debate that are cornerstones of academic life. The vote took place at the regents meeting at UCLA following comments from proponents of the existing relationship and others calling for severing all ties with the labs.

UC has managed the Los Alamos National Laboratory and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory since their founding, in 1943 and 1952 respectively.

All devices in the US nuclear arsenal were conceived, designed and developed at the two labs. Lab officials have also been involved intimately in developing strategy and policy for these weapons of mass destruction.

The two labs employ about 16,200 scientists, technicians and support personnel, and have an annual budget exceeding $2 billion. UC will receive $12.5 million per year in management fees — a substantial increase over the previous pact — and also will benefit through lab-related spin-off contracts and grants for other research.

The management contracts are subject to renewal every five years, but the regents must give the DOE two years notice if they decide to cancel an agreement. Therefore, the September 1985 decision to renegotiate made this month's decision virtually inevitable.

Management contracts for Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and the Los Alamos National Laboratory were approved by the UC Board of Regents Sept. 18. The two facilities have designed and developed all the nuclear warheads in the US arsenal.

The Livermore lab has been the site of numerous anti-nuclear protests in recent years such as a blockade of the road to the facility.

Advocates of university management of the nuclear weapons labs argue that because the devices are necessary for deterrence in a dangerous world, our nation is compelled to do its best in what is admittedly a distasteful field.

They say UC is uniquely qualified to perform a vital public service — maintenance of the highest level of technical excellence in the labs' high-security setting. By creating a university-like environment where ideas flow more freely than in other secret labs, UC is able to attract some of the nation's top scientists, many of whom would reject a typical weapons-research setting.

"No other management could offer the unique academic ties or manage it in a neutral manner," Glenn Seaborg said in 1985.

Seaborg, associate director of the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, won the Nobel Prize for discovering plutonium, a key ingredient of nuclear bombs.

Strong opposition

Critics of university management, such as UC Berkeley physics professor Charles Schwartz, reject arguments that position UC as the only effective manager.

More importantly, Schwartz said, UC lends a "mantle of legitimacy" to the labs, presenting them as "high-minded arms of a university."

With this increased moral authority, he said, the labs are more successful in winning approval for what are considered by many analysts to be highly destabilizing weapons systems, such as the nuclear explosion-pumped X-ray laser that is the centerpiece of President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative.

Question of control

In April 1985, the UC Berkeley Faculty Senate released one of the most comprehensive independent reports on the labs ever produced. Whatever influence UC management may have on the labs' products, it concluded, the university "exercises very little control or leadership over major policies or budgets at the labs [and] it seems highly unlikely that the university will ever be granted... a much greater voice."

Many critics believe the gigantic weapons labs have taken on a life of their own, independent not only of UC but of the real security needs of the country.

UC's reputation obscures the fact that the labs are "self-serving bureaucratic institutions" with their own ideological, survival and growth imperatives, said Schwartz.

The labs have been likened to a giant corporation by Major General William Hoover, director of the DOE's Office of Military Application.

"Like any good corporation, we have an investment strategy ... and we intend to pursue it in the decade of the '80s," Hoover was quoted as saying in a 1983 article in Physics Today magazine.

"We need to increase our manpower in research, development, and technology by about 15 percent," he added. "We need to increase the level of underground testing."

Hugh DeWitt, a Lawrence Livermore theoretical physicist for the past 30 years, wrote the article. He concluded that such a statement from a high DOE official "provides one clear answer as to why we have no comprehensive test-ban treaty now and are not likely to have one in the future."

DeWitt believes that kind of corporate — survival-growth mentality—linking institutional identity and the career development of individual scientists to an ever-increasing nuclear arms effort—drives the arms race.

For example, he points out, one reason the Reagan administration opposes a comprehensive ban on nuclear testing is that current nuclear warheads require ongoing trials to ensure reliability.

"Why have the laboratories been allowed to produce weapon designs that effectively preclude the US from ever signing a comprehensive test-ban treaty?" DeWitt asks.

He cites examples of lobbying by lab officials which directly derailed treaty efforts. In 1978, for example, then-Director Harold Agnew of Los Alamos and Director Roger Batzel of Lawrence Livermore convinced President Carter to scuttle efforts to negotiate a comprehensive test ban agreement with the Soviet Union—an effort acknowledged by Agnew in 1981.

Recent reports in the Washington Post cite DOE documents indicating that lab officials have engaged in an extensive, ongoing program of lobbying Congress to reject nuclear test limits.

The question of the labs' role in undermining a comprehensive test ban was raised anew last March, when an article in the Los Angeles Times strongly suggested, as DeWitt had earlier argued, that the labs indeed have played a major, possibly illegal role in pushing the Reagan administration away from supporting a comprehensive ban — a goal that had been espoused by the previous four US presidents.

After the article appeared, many professors voiced concern to UC President Gardner.

"As physicists of the University of California, we were very disturbed to learn that the weapons laboratories' design strategies over the last decade or more are said to be inconsistent with a comprehensive test ban in the foreseeable future," wrote UC Santa Barbara professors Walter Kohn and Jose Fulco, in a letter cosigned by 48 colleagues throughout the UC system, including two Nobel Laureates and eight members of the National Academy of Sciences.

"The Reagan administration is opposed to the comprehensive test ban proposed by the Soviet Union because the UC weapons labs have designed nuclear bombs of such fragile sophistication that they must be constantly tested," wrote 200 UC Berkeley professors in a separate appeal to Gardner.

"The situation is wrong in itself," they added. "It is also a clear failure of the oversight responsibility of the university."

Academic Vice President William Frazer responded in a letter to Kohn and Fulco that "the limitation of nuclear weapons testing... would require national policy decisions which are beyond the purview of the laboratories or the university."

Frazer disputed the assertion that weapons are designed to require frequent testing.

"The process of establishing the specifications for a new nuclear warhead is one of extended interaction between the designers at the laboratories and the military services," he wrote.

"Stockpile survivability is given a high priority in this process."

Last April, Frazer requested a study of the issues surrounding these concerns by UC's Scientific and Academic Advisory Committee (SAAC), a standing committee that advises Gardner on technical oversight of the weapons labs.

The committee, chaired by Frederick Reines, a professor of physics at UC Irvine, completed its report last July.

"The missions of the laboratories are established by government policies and directives," the SAAC concluded. Setting programatic goals for the laboratories "would transcend the authority of the university."

According to the SAAC, "weapons currently in the stockpile are remarkably robust and designed so as to minimize the requirements for continued nuclear testing."

The report acknowledged concerns on the part of the lab directors that confidence in the stockpile, as well as recruitment and training of weapons designers would be impaired "without the benefit that accrues from continuing testing experience."

Regarding concerns that the labs improperly "promote" new systems, such as the X-ray laser, the committee commented: "The laboratories' advocacy of potential new programs — including some that require nuclear testing — has been proper, supports the national policy of maintaining a strong deterrent, and does not contravene national policy with respect to achieving further constraints on nuclear testing."

"In our opinion," Fulco and Kohn responded, "the SAAC report demonstrates the ineffectiveness of the university's oversight of the weapons laboratories: No independent technical judgment of the laboratories' positions on weapons testing was made; faculty suggestions which would have broadened the laboratories' posture... were rejected; and all aspects of the laboratories' operations and the university's management role... were found to be without a single blemish."

The two physicists prepared a lengthy analysis which offered detailed evidence from congressional, academic and news media sources that contradicted virtually all the conclusions of the advisory committee report.

"We are therefore truly astonished that the SAAG finds the concerns of the faculty entirely without substance," Fulco and Kohn concluded.

These concerns did not persuade the regents. But the divisive impact of UC's management of the labs will undoubtedly continue. Periodic polls on the subject have shown a sharp split among faculty.

The UC Student Association issued a stinging condemnation of the regents' decision and its effect on the academic environment. Lab-critics are already preparing for the next opportunity to sever ties to nuclear weapons development.

"The university Faculty Senate has established a special statewide committee charged to concern itself with a number of critical issues in the area of university management of the labs and report back to the faculty in time for the next set of negotiations," Kohn said.

Those negotiations are expected to begin in 1990.