May 14, 2007
by Will Parrish; May 13, 2007
For over six decades, the University of California has been the United States government’s primary nuclear weapons research and design contractor. It has managed the Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore nuclear weapons compounds since their inceptions. Scientists at these laboratories – UC employees, all – have designed every nuclear warhead in the US arsenal, of which there have been 65 designated types (1). UC nuclear weaponeers have also carried out close to every US nuclear weapons test detonation since the dawn of the Nuclear Age, of which the official tally is 1,054.(2)
The fealty of the UC Board of Regents to the nuclear industry is such that, during Fiscal Year 2005-06, the UC received almost as much money from the Department of Energy to conduct nuclear weapons programs ($2.76 billion) as it received from the State of California for education ($2.85 billion).(3)
On Wednesday, May 9th, 41 UC students, alumni, and faculty members began a hunger strike to demand that the UC retract its management of the Los Alamos and Livermore labs. The hunger strike marks a new approach for a student-driven UC labs severance campaign that has taken place for the past five years. Individuals at four campuses – Berkeley, Santa Cruz, San Francisco, and Santa Barbara -- are part of the hunger strike roster. They are being joined by one “solidarity faster” in Albuquerque.
This bold act of civil resistance comes at a critical time. In March, the US Nuclear Weapons Council, an interagency committee of executives from the Departments of Defense and Energy, announced that the UC's Livermore facility would develop a new hydrogen bomb. Officially, this is to be the first new US nuclear weapon since the end of the Cold War.
Los Alamos is slated to manufacture the plutonium bomb cores, or "pits," for these weapons. Owing in part to its technical complexity and political baggage, pit manufacturing is the pivotal step in creating a new generation of nuclear bombs.(4)
The larger context for these programs is that the US nuclear weapons complex is attempting to renew itself, to prepare its infrastructure and employees for the task of building dozens of new nukes a year by the year 2030. The Department of Energy (DOE) has outlined that plan in its “Complex 2030” document, released this past November.(5)
The UC stands to play a central role in these developments. But it is instructive to note that the Regents do not really “manage” LANL and LLNL in any meaningful sense. As a UC faculty committee observed in 1970, the UC’s role at the weapons labs is akin to that of a “benevolent absentee landlord.” The Regents rubber-stamp everything the labs do, providing no actual oversight of their programs and policies -- precisely as the (DOE) requires of them.
From the perspective of the DOE, then, what is the benefit of UC weapons lab management, or the illusion thereof? As the largest public research university system in the world, the UC provides the ultimate fig leaf of academic respectability to nuclear weapons science. Over 30 years ago, the late grassroots organization the UC Nuclear Weapons Labs Conversion Project noted: “The UC does not manage the nuclear weapons labs, but rather the public relations about the weapons labs.” By casting the UC’s intellectual and political capital on the side of the nuclear weapons industry, the Regents help to legitimize everything these labs do.
By contrast, if the Regents withdrew their management of LANL and LLNL, they would effectively do the opposite: They would provide the weapons labs with the worst publicity possible. The political consequences of their doing so would be vast. A major crisis would ensue for the nuclear weapons complex. Congress might awaken to the necessity of overseeing the labs’ work in a more meaningful way. Morale among lab workers would plunge. The public discourse about nuclear weapons would shift in a small but significant way. Those who favor disarmament would have achieved a major victory that they could mobilize in their effort to eliminate nuclear weapons once and for all.
That is particularly so at this critical juncture. The Regents have rarely been more politically vulnerable in their capacity as nukes lab managers. The labs' new hydrogen bomb program, misleadingly referred to as the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW), has virtually no technical justification and is clearly contrary to the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which commits the US to pursuing negotiations in “good faith” for nuclear disarmament. The RRW is deeply unpopular even among many long-time nuclear weapons supporters. It is even opposed by The Navy.(6)
If the RRW dies, the US nuclear weapons complex will be, in turn, one step closer to the grave. One of the complex’s dirty secrets is that it is currently in a state of crisis. The post-Cold War world is producing increasingly few young scientists interested in working on nuclear weapons. Many of the weapons labs’ projects lack a clear purpose and a clear goal. UC weapons lab severance would cause this crisis to deepen appreciably.
The day prior to the hunger strike, the UC officially received a new contract, only with a twist: It will manage the lab as part of a limited-liability corporation with Bechtel Corporation, two other multi-national firms, and Texas A&M University. In 2006, UC-Bechtel’s Los Alamos Security, LLC likewise took over from the UC alone as manager of Los Alamos. The contradictions of UC weapons lab management, thus, have never been greater.
The focus of the UC hunger strike is, in many ways, the UC Regents meeting at UC San Francisco on Thursday, May 17th. Hunger strikers, hundreds of their supporters at UC campuses, and other supportive activists and individuals throughout California will mobilize for direct action at the meeting. In the meantime, we are attempting by every non-violent means possible to pressure The Regents to sever their nuclear ties. If The Regents fail to withdraw their weapons lab management, many of those participating (including the author) have pledged to sustain their hunger fasts indefinitely.
We invite everyone who supports a livable future to support this effort in any way you can. There are endless ways to do so. For more information, please visit nonukeshungerstrike.blogspot.com and www.ucnuclearfree.org, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Will Parrish is an alumnus of UC Santa Cruz, a coordinator of the UC Nuclear Free campaign (www.ucnuclearfree.org), and an anti-war organizer living in Santa Barbara, CA.