Wednesday, May 9, 2007

UC Weapons Labs: Myths & Realities

“With the greatest weapons come the greatest lies,” the author and social psychology professor Joel Kovel has written. Myths and falsehoods have grown up around every aspect of the nuclear weapons enterprise. Through its role as nuclear weapons lab manager, the UC has only added to this web of mystification; in fact, the UC’s role as weapons lab manager is itself the subject of a great deal of confusion.

Myth: “The UC is a more open and democratic manager than a private corporation would be.”

Those who tout this perspective usually seem to consider the UC to be, on the whole, a benevolent institution -- one committed to intellectual freedom, open scientific inquiry, and democracy.

With respect to the weapons labs, nothing could be further from the truth. The UC Regents are a profoundly anti-democratic body. This is true in general, and it is true of their approach to nuclear weapons lab management in particular. During the past 63 years, the Regents have stonewalled every single effort on the part of students, faculty, staff, and community members to contribute even the slightest margin of input into the weapons labs’ policies and programs, without exception.

One of countless examples is as follows. In 1970, Berkeley Physics Professor Charles Schwartz began a campaign to obtain the right to present a single lecture at the Livermore Lab. Schwartz' intention was to present an alternative viewpoint to lab employees, who were entirely shuttered away from any dissenting perspectives, as well as give lie to the labs' claim of being sites for open scientific inquiry. For years, the Regents denied Schwartz the opportunity. In 1980, he took his case to court and won. The Regents managed to stonewall him for several more years. Finally, in 1985, Schwartz was permitted to present his lecture – and almost nobody came, due to a lack of advertising by the labs.

The Oakland-based attorney and long-time nuclear disarmament activist Andy Lichterman has written regarding his attempts to research and gather information regarding the activities at the weapons labs, “If anything, I have been treated on a personal level with more respect by the uniformed military and civilian military service and Department of Defense employees than by the University of California and the Department of Energy. Both nuclear weaponeers and elite U.S. universities bring a certain arrogance to their way of being in the world that is second to none.”

In the late-‘80s, the Bechtel Corporation was the subject of a book called “Friends in High Places: Inside the World’s Most Secretive Corporation.” It speaks volumes that the UC Regents have established a snug partnership to manage a pair of nuclear weapons laboratories – that is, institutions that are as secretive and obsequious as it gets -- with a multi-national corporation that has been thusly described.

Myth: “If the UC Doesn’t Manage the Weapons Labs, Wouldn’t Some Other University Just Do It?”

This is, in many ways, a corollary to the argument above. On a certain level, it makes sense. After all, what good would it do for the UC to lose its nuclear labs management contract, only for it to be picked up by, say, the University of Texas?

A whole lot of good, depending on the circumstances.

It is instructive to note that the Regents do not actually 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 Department of Energy (DOE) requires of them.

From the perspective of the DOE, then, what is the benefit of UC weapons lab management? 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 would 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. 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.

The only way for any of that to happen is for UC students and other supporters of weapons lab severance to bring an overwhelming amount of pressure to bear on The Regents to force them to sever the ties. The alternative is for the UC to continue managing nuclear weapons labs for the next seven to 20 years (the length of their contracts at LANL and LLNL).

Myth: It’s Possible to Influence The Regents On This Issue By a Directly Lobbying Strategy

The Regents are structurally unaccountable to students. If in some way this point is not already clear to you, we encourage you to read the “Who Rules The University?” fact sheet that will also be made available throughout the “No Nukes In Our Name!” hunger strike.

Over the years, hundreds of faculty members, a brave handful of UC administrators, numerous California State Assemblymen and State Senators, and even one Governor of the State of California (Jerry Brown) have attempted to lobby the Regents to sever ties with the labs, or to attempt to convert the weapons labs’ research to more socially-beneficial ends. Ultimately, the Regents have been swayed by none of these tactics. It should as come as no surprise, then, that when students who wield not even a fraction of the same power and status as high-ranking public officials have adopted similar strategies, the Regents have entirely ignored them, or else responded to them with total disdain.

Students do wield a great deal of power when they act collectively, in a coordinated way, and with the will to disrupt university business as usual. Historical examples at UC campuses abound. The Berkeley Free Speech Movement and the South African Apartheid Divestment movement are but two of them. As those movements illustrate, when students make the institution they are a part of increasingly unmanageable for the powers-that-be, they are able to realize even some of their most ambitious goals.

Myth: “LANL and LLNL Aren’t Nuclear Weapons Labs; They’re Science Labs”

This rationale is especially favored among UC students who have interned at the weapons labs, where they are indoctrinated – and we use that word here with rigorous precision -- with the belief that the labs’ work is, for the most part, not nuclear weapons-related, but instead committed to socially beneficial ends. One might think the fact that roughly 80 percent of the funding at each laboratory in any given year is devoted to nuclear weapons research, engineering, maintenance, testing, and production would instantly settle the matter. Strangely, for some people, it does not.

The weapons labs do all they can to foster a socially-conscious image of themselves. A 2000 LANL recruitment brochure reads, "The LANL vision is to be a national laboratory where science serves society, preserves the earth, improves the quality of life through innovations in science and technology and the management of our business and operations at a world-class level.” For its part, LLNL’s literature describes the lab as “a premier applied science laboratory” and hypes its “major research programs in energy and environment, bioscience and biotechnology, and basic science and advanced technology.”

An analogy is in order here. In 2000, the second largest oil corporation in the world, British Petroluem, rechristened itself Beyond Petroleum. All BP gas stations were painted green – “greenwashed,” as it were. A massive ad campaign followed, carefully tailored to convince the general gas-buying public that the company was now devoting a massive amount of its resources to non-polluting “green” products.

While BP did invest $200 million in renewable energy technologies between 2000 and 2005, it actually spent an equivalent amount of money on its ad campaign to brag about those investments. Clearly, the purpose of the campaign was not to make the planet “greener,” but to make BP’s corporate brand image greener, and in doing so appeal to the broad segment of its target market that makes purchasing decisions based on ecological principles. Even more clearly, the company never really went “beyond petroleum” at all: It currently invests less than one percent as much money in renewable energy as in fossil fuels.

BP is, in short, engaged in a cynical marketing ploy. And so it is with the nuclear weapons laboratories.

In their 2006 budgets, LANL and LLNL devoted 3.1 percent and 3.4 percent, respectively, to research classified as “Science.” Hence, while there might be some science going on besides nuclear weapons and other military work, it is an extreme minority that could easily be shifted to UC campuses and other labs if the nukes labs were to be shut down, or if the UC were to exit as manager.


Anonymous said...

These numbers are inaccurate and heavily slanted. Although excited to see students actually taking a strong stand on something and trying actively to make a difference, I am saddened to observe an all or nothing approach. There is, in fact, excellent science going on at both of these labs. Weapons funding is on the decline whereas funding for global climate change research, nuclear and alternative energy research, and advancement of energy conservation technologies is on the rise. Much work is going on at both LANL and LLNL in mitigating global warming and the impending energy crisis.

Perhaps more useful and, potentially, more successful would be an outcry from the students to continue this trend of decreased weapons funding and increased funding in basic sciences and growing energy issues. There are enormous pools of technical and scientific talent at both laboratories. If directed toward issues other than weapons (i.e., expanding energy production of "green" sources, solving nuclear waste issues, developing a viable hydrogen fuel cell infrastructure, etc.), I have little doubt that solutions could be developed as quickly as the product of the Manhattan Project was.

Anonymous said...

In reviewing this blog, I noted not a single dissenting comment. As an active participant in many forums, I know that you have received dissenting opinions. I sent one anonymously and will wait to see if it is posted. I challenge you to post dissenting opinions. If you choose to only post supportive comments, you are as guilty of filtering public comments as the government agencies you verbally attack. Be brave. Open yourselves up for debate. Believe it or not, you do not know everything and many might say that you are the ignorant ones. But you will never know until you listen to all sides of the issue rather than proclaiming your own opinions loud enough to drown out any dissenters.

Anonymous said...

a) All comments are published, they may take a while to appear because of moderation, but all comments are published.

b) In terms of all or nothing: RRW and Complex 2030 entail an increase in funding for nuclear weapons. At both labs, according to their own budgets published online, over 80% of the money goes directly to "Weapons Activities".

Furthermore, students have been working on this issue for a number of years now. They have chosen to step up their tactics because the regents have chosen to do nothing at all to mitigate the moral wrong taking place at the labs under their management.

The recent awarding of management of the labs to a private consortium involving the UC and Bechtel shows that the labs are not moving in a new direction but continuing towards the production of new nuclear weapons and complex 2030.

Anonymous said...

Again, I applaud your activism. Too often nowadays people accept the direction the government is going without complaint, yet there should be complaint. Also, I have seen the budgets and, sadly, must agree that the numbers of dollars going to weapons related work far exceeds anything going anywhere else.

Again, though, the potential is there for a divertion of these funds to other research activities. There is an excellent infrastructure and talent base at both of these institutions to solve major problems facing the world today. Rather than simply try to cut off funding to these labs -- which, to be quite honest, will never happen -- why not strive for something more possible like a shift in funding?

That said, I, again, applaud the courage of the students in this protest. Never be afraid to stand up for what you believe in.

Keep in mind, though, that "the genie is out of the bag." Even if the U.S. throws out their stockpile, the other nuclear powers will, most likely, not follow suit. Recall that President Carter instituted the once-through fuel cycle in the nuclear power industry to illustrate the willingness of the U.S. to prevent nuclear weapons proliferation, yet not a single nuclear nation mirrored his action. The problem is much more complicated than destroying the U.S. nukes that currently exist. The know-how exists to make more. We, as a world, need to learn to cope with nuclear technology because we cannot stuff the genie back into the bottle. I would think that witnessing the jubilation expressed by North Korea on their successful detonation of a nuclear weapon would show U.S. citizens that other nations will continue to strive to be nuclear powers even if the U.S. did something as foolish as shrug off such power.

There will always be nuclear weapons in the U.S. and in the world. No hunger strike will change that. But you can make a difference in how federal money is allocated by making more reasonable demands. Utilize the attention you have right now wisely.