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Bidding for the Bomb Lab: UC and LANL

Expect the University of California to bid for the contract to manage the Los Alamos nuclear weapons lab.
Bidding for the Bomb Lab
Expect a Fierce Competition for the Plutonium Jewel in the Nuclear Crown

In late January, just months before the Department of Energy decided to terminate its no-bid contract with the University of California to operate the Los Alamos National Laboratory, a letter appeared in the Albuquerque Journal, New Mexico's largest newspaper. Phillip Rogaway, a computer scientist and faculty member at UC Davis wrote;

"It has been reported that DOE Secretary Spencer Abraham is considering putting out for bid UC's contract to run Los Alamos, or even canceling it early. This would be a nice outcome, even if it should come to pass for the wrong reason. The question isn't if the University of California manages the labs poorly or well. We shouldn't be managing weapons labs at all. It is unfit business for a university."(1)

Rogaway's letter followed up with a summary description of UC faculty and student opposition and criticism of the nuclear weapons lab, a tradition which is as rich and long as the lab's "official" 60 year history. He cited the repeated votes by UC faculty to phase out the university's ties to the lab. The most recent call by UC faculty for severance from the weapons labs was in 1996 when the University Committee on Research Policy (UCORP) released a report questioning the contract and its effects on the university. The UCORP report, "On the University's Relations With the Department of Energy Laboratories [LANL, and LLNL]" looked at the UC's management from the perspective that UC administration of Los Alamos and Livermore has been a public service to the nation. The faculty committee judged the university's relationship with the labs based on five criteria:

"(1) The activity should be supportive of the University's primary missions of teaching and research; (2) The activity should be consistent with the University's essential commitment to freedom of expression; (3) The activity can be performed at least as effectively by the University as by other institutions; (4) The activity should have no serious adverse effects on the University; and (5) The activity should contribute to human well-being."(2).

The UCORP faculty committee concluded after an intense study of the UC relationship with the labs, and the nature of the work within the labs that; "the University's management of the LANL and LLNL does not, on balance, fulfill these conditions of appropriate public service." Furthermore, the 1996 UCORP report urged that each campus vote on the motion; "The University of California will, in a timely and orderly manner, phase out responsibility for management of the Los Alamos National Laboratory and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory." The UC Academic Senate has repeatedly argued that it is inappropriate in the very least for the UC to be in charge of the nation's nuclear weapons research and design facilities. The issue is likely to become more pressing as Los Alamos continues to expand its abilities to produce plutonium pits as was demonstrated in the spring of 2003, implying that the labs are quickly becoming sites not just of research and design, but of actual of weapons component production.

UC students, although politically less powerful than the faculty have had their say on the issue of the labs. As recent as this year students have organized in and outside of the UC's institutional framework to call for severance from the labs. On February 25, 2003, the UCLA Student Assembly voted 9:1 in favor of disbanding the UC's relationship with the nuclear weapons labs. This followed a similar vote at UC Santa Barbara the year before demanding that the Regents terminate the UC's contract with the DOE. In the weeks leading up to the US invasion of Iraq, students confronted the UC Regents at their public meetings in San Francisco, warning them of the University's role in enabling war and endangering global security via its national labs. Commenting on the university's responsibility, recent UC Santa Cruz graduate Emily Hundemer stated:

"If the United States declares an illegal war on Iraq, the possibility of the U.S. launching a nuclear attack rises dangerously. Since it is UC scientists designing these weapons, the Regents are accountable for a potential use of these weapons. This could plunge the world into a nuclear war and obliterate the taboo that has prevented the use of nuclear weapons since the U.S. bombed Japan over 50 years ago,"

Valerie Kao, another recent graduate of UC Berkeley expanded on the management scandal at Los Alamos, and the role of the UC in the nation's nuclear weapons complex by saying:

"UC management could be criticized on the sole basis of its track record, having failed to protect whistleblowers and to hold stronger accountability with Lab administration. However, the real issue is the labs' role in reviving the arms race and preventing real steps toward international disarmament, as required by international law."

The issue of the labs has always been of concern within the university community. Many faculty and students have called for a break with the nuclear weapons labs because of ethical concerns, problems regarding openness and academic freedom, and the transforming reality of geopolitics in the post cold war. Clearly there is a strong opposition to UC management of LANL within its own walls. So why have the nation's nuclear weapons labs remained under the UC's control for so long? And why does it appear that the UC is preparing to fight to keep its Northern New Mexico Lab? To answer this question we need pose another - What does the UC get in return for its administration of the Los Alamos, and Lawrence Livermore National Labs?

Compliments, not Conflicts of Interests

"It makes UC look like a bunch of wimps," UC Regent Richard Blum reportedly said in objection to the long-standing university policy of not bidding for the Los Alamos Lab contract if it were to be put up for competition (5). The UC has stated countless times in the past that it will not compete for Los Alamos or Lawrence Livermore if the Energy Department decides to solicit competing bids from corporations, or even from other universities. The policy has been one of staunch academic pride, and a belief that the UC truly has rendered a unique and irreproducible service to the nation in its stewardship of atomic weapons science. Bruce Darling, the top UC administrator in charge of the weapons labs stated to the press in early February that a break between the UC and the DOE labs " 'would probably be an embarrassment', to the UC, but as to permanent impact on the university system, 'I'm not sure there would be one.' (10). Darlings claims do not however seem to add up to the recent machinations within the UC's Oakland central office.

Times are changing within the UC's upper administration. Many of the UC Regents have expressed a strong desire to compete for the contract to run Los Alamos, and recent appointments in the school's upper echelons seem to confirm that the UC is building up muscle for a competition more akin to a business than university. The selection of Robert Dynes as the incoming UC President replacing Richard Atkinson hints that the board of Regents is ready to take on any would be upstart, be it the University of Texas, Lockheed Martin, or a consortium of private and public entities.

Robert Dynes has served as a consultant to the national weapons labs for more than 25 years. He has held the position of Vice Chair of the UC President's Council on the National Labs, and worked as a member of the UC's five person Board of Oversight for the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Clearly an insider of the weapons labs, as a physicist and Chancellor of UC San Diego, Dynes always acted as a champion of university research and big science sponsored by military funding; retaining the labs embodies this approach precisely.

Early this year, Dynes gave a speech at the Los Alamos Lab entitled, "UC-National Labs: a Beneficial Partnership." Dynes' support for UC management of the labs flows from his background as a physicist, but his work to keep the labs within the UC comes on the part of Dynes the administrator and technocrat. According to Dynes, "UC management of the labs has broken down in a variety of ways," but that he has, "seen first-hand how mutually beneficial this partnership is... [and] how this partnership benefits this nation." Under Dynes leadership, and with strong backing from the UC Regents, it seems likely that the university will bid for the Los Alamos Lab against all competition.

Even outgoing UC chief Richard Atkinson has expressed signs that the university will go for the contract in 2005:

"will the University now compete for the contract to manage Los Alamos National Laboratory? My first instinct is to respond: "Yes." We want to compete ‹ and we want to compete hard ‹ in order to continue the tradition of excellence in science and innovation that has characterized our 60 years of managing the national laboratories. We want to compete in order to maintain the world's premier nuclear design workforce. And we want to compete because we believe, with every fiber of our institutional being, that continued UC management is in the absolute best interests of the nation's security." (8).

Current lab chief George Nanos has put it even more clearly echoing Atkinson at his State of the Lab address on July 23 that the UC will "compete, and compete hard" to run Los Alamos. Nanos firmly believes that the UC is the singular academic powerhouse, and the only institution suited to run Los Alamos, and that if the current agreement is broken; " 'we will have terribly broken something for the country.' Nanos said that management by a private corporation could potentially ruin LANL, citing the management of Sandia National Laboratory by Lockheed Martin. Nanos warned that, 'If [LANL] ever turns into another Sandia... and Sandia is a fine institution - but it's not a science lab.'" (3).

The UC Regents, President, Lab Director Nanos, and upper administration have repeatedly foreshadowed their desire to bid for the contract. Given that it is their sole decision to do so (not the UC faculty, students, or staff) the scene seems set for a competition come 2005.

What is riding on the contract is much more complex than "good science, national stewardship, and public service." The UC's expected bid exposes a much more embedded interest in the lab. Dynes remarked of the Bush administration (who seem to be pressing to severe the UC's contract) that; "It recently came as a surprise to Vice President Cheney that the UC system retains no money (aside from its administrative costs) from its contract to manage the labs. The university is a contractor with no conflict of interest. It has no more important goal than helping to build research excellence and upholding scientific integrity in both open and closed projects." (6).

However, the UC does have strong if not conflicting interests in retaining its lab management contract. The main reasons compelling the UC to retain its LANL contract with the DOE are pride, personnel, and finances. Pride is a prickly subject for any university. The UC sees itself as an academic institution without parallel. And rightly so, the UC is constituted by a body of PhDs larger than any other entity in the world, with a budget of nearly $15 billion, a faculty and staff pushing 160,000 in number, and a student body of 200,000 plus, the UC is by and far a university without equal in the nation. But the recent press coverage of the UC's management problems at Los Alamos have begun to tarnish the school's blue and gold luster - Fiat Ignominia! During the UC Regents July 16-17 meeting, President Richard Atkinson and several Regents slammed the press, accusing the media of blowing allegations of theft, fraud, and mismanagement at LANL out of proportion. It seems the UC's pride was wounded. UC Regents Chairman John J. Moores, licking wounds and building morale commented about the UC's management of Los Alamos, "We did a job that any Fortune 500 company would be thrilled to report to its shareholders."(4). The UC has always run the lab and to top administrators, it would be a blow to the prestige of the UC to lose its jewel in Northern New Mexico.

Personnel are another powerful drive to keep the labs. This interest in keeping LANL's contract stems from the reality of what lab management demands and what it constructs within the UC. The lab demands a significant staff, and resources within the UC Office of the President. Known as the Laboratory Administration Office, the LAO consists of approximately 35 staff members who sole job is to look after the UC's contracts. The UC Lab Administration Office, while part of the University Office of the President, is entirely funded by the Department of Energy. The UC-DOE five year contracts for lab management include a payment of $5 million per year to cover the costs of the LAO (7). In addition to this staff, there is the University Presidents Council on the National Laboratories, consisting of 33 members, all part of the UC, the Labs, and Private Industry. These bodies would de facto be abolished in the event of the UC's severance from its national labs. Bodies like these, be they advisory councils, or bureaucracies have a natural inclination to fight for their survival, and in good times to expand their scope and power if possible. The UC-LANL contract's questionable future bodes ill for both of these goals.

Finances are perhaps the most resounding reason for the UC's expected bid to keep LANL. Although the UC retains no money for its management of the labs, it still benefits enormously from its contracts. The University of California has one of the largest and most valuable endowments in the world. The UC's retirement plan, and its investments are valued at approximately $51 billion. A good chunk of this change comes from the employees at the national labs, most of whom are by default employees of the university. This amounts to thousands of highly paid researchers and technicians, all of whom contribute to the UC's pension portfolios. The influx of LANL money is enough to force the UC into a fight for its investments. It is a powerful form of institutional bondage closely linking the status of Los Alamos with its manager. According to the UC, there are over 8000 workers, researchers, and administrators at the Los Alamos National Lab who are UC employees. (9). As a rough estimate, Los Alamos employees account for about 5% of the total UC workforce, including some of the most highly paid positions within the UC. In the event that the university loses Los Alamos Lab, the DOE-UC contract states that; "The Contractor shall take steps to return to the DOE a portion of the UCRP assets attributable to the Contract employees through a spin-off-reversion transaction." (11). The outcome will be an impact in the UC's endowment. The university will lose a significant source of investments in its retirement portfolios.

September 2005 will be upon the DOE, UC, and all would be dark horse competitors sooner than later, and yet no definitive timetable or procedure exists yet for the Los Alamos contract competition (probably because bidding out the nation's nuclear weapons research/design facilities is an entirely unprecedented move). A blue ribbon commission has been convened to study the impacts of bidding out the lab, as well as drafting the requirements for eligible bidders. The commission∂s meetings have been closed to the public in typical NNSA fashion, but among those queried about the process are current lab heads, the UC, and Juan Sanchez, Vice President of Research for the University of Texas. (12). The UC reaffirmed its position that it will likely bid. Scott Sudduth, UC Director for Federal Relations is quoted in the Associated Press as saying, "From a tactical point of view, we [the UC] are operating under the assumption that we will compete." UC administrators drove home the point that if the DOE wants top quality science, the only choice for management would be California. Texas∂ Sanchez parried by claiming that shuffling lab management at Sandia, Oak Ridge, and other DOE facilities has resulted in better science and business. Regarding the University of Texas∂ expected bid for LANL, Sanchez cautiously remarked that, ?No decision has been made, but we are seriously considering the opportunity."

In all fairness, a UC bid is not guaranteed, but all signs within the university point toward a will to do so. Counting pride, personnel, and financial interests in the lab, the UC is likely to ignore California's whopping budget crisis, as well as its own, and shell out the estimated $5 - $25 million to prepare and submit a bid. Who will be in competition with the UC? Probably the University of Texas, Perhaps several large defense contractors like Lockheed Martin, Bechtel, or the non-profit Battelle. The state of New Mexico, Governor Bill Richardson and Senator Pete Domenici will surely play a hand. The University of New Mexico is likely to carry out a junior role in someone's bid. All of those above could also work in consortiums or partnerships in multitudes of ways. And of course the Lab itself will pull a few strings and play some of its famous power politics during the scramble to the finish line. Only one thing seems sure regarding the future of Los Alamos, and that is what is spelled out in the current US government's agenda - researching, designing, and building new more usable nuclear weapons for the 21st century. That is unless the question of the labs moves on from the illusory issues of "mismanagement" toward more obvious and pressing concerns about global peace and security.

1. Rogaway, Phillip. "Running Lab at Odds With Education" Albuquerque Journal. Sunday, January 26, 2003 2. Gold, Warren M. et. al. "REPORT OF THE UNIVERSITY COMMITTEE ON RESEARCH POLICY ON THE UNIVERSITY'S RELATIONS WITH THE DEPARTMENT OF ENERGY LABORATORIES" UC Academic Senate. January 1996. 3. Williams, Amy. "Director Nanos Gives State of LANL Address." July 23, 2003. 4. Davidson, Keay. "Press takes it on chin at UC Regents meeting Los Alamos scandal got heavy coverage" San Francisco Chronicle. July 18,2003. 5. Davidson, Keay, "Eyes of Texas upon Los Alamos lab University there hopes to edge out UC as manager of nuclear weapons facility" San Francisco Chronicle, January 20, 2003. 6. Dynes, Robert C. "UC, National Labs - A Beneficial Partnership." Speech Given at LANL, April 2003. 7. UCOP. "REGENTS APPROVE NATIONAL LABORATORY CONTRACTS" September 19, 1997 8. Atkinson, Richard. "STATEMENT BY UC PRESIDENT RICHARD C. ATKINSON BEFORE THE HOUSE ENERGY AND COMMERCE COMMITTEE SUBCOMMITTEE ON OVERSIGHT AND INVESTIGATIONS" May 1, 2003. 9. Tollefson, Jeff. "Lab Contract Up for Grabs." The New Mexican. Thursday, May 01, 2003 10. Widener, Andrea. "Lab Workers Anxiety Rises as UC Oversight Draws Fire From Outside." Contra Costa Times. February 10, 2003. 11. UC/DOE Contract, Los Alamos National Laboratory. UCOP Laboratory Administration Office. 12. Gehrke, Robert. ?Potential Bidders Offer Input On Lab Contract Process.∑ Associated Press. Wednesday, August 6, 2003.

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