The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Renewal at Los Alamos Weapons Lab Resurrects Deeper Debate

by Forrest Wilder

While a bidding war for control of the US’s top nuke facility pairs two state universities with two corporations, critics are asking questions that won’t appear in either team’s proposal.

July 22, 2005 – As the 60th anniversary of the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki approaches, one of the nation’s top nuclear weapons laboratories is seeking new management. Or more accurately, the Department of Energy is sponsoring a competitive bidding war for control of the Los Alamos National Laboratory – the first since the lab’s secretive genesis during World War II as the Manhattan Project, the birthplace of the bombs that devastated out those Japanese cities.

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But the contest over who will run the nation’s premier nuclear arms facility has prompted activists to ask harder questions than just those concerning who will operate the facility safer and more efficiently. Some critics challenge the very wisdom of what they see as an administration trudging headlong into another nuclear arms race.

On one side of the contract face-off is the University of California, which has run Los Alamos for over 60 years. UC is paired up with Bechtel, the global engineering firm best known for its enormous, largely unfulfilled contracts to help rebuild Iraq’s war-torn public infrastructure.

On the other side of the bidding war is the University of Texas, which has aggressively sought management of a national lab since 1996. UT is joined by Lockheed-Martin, the world’s top defense contractor and manager of Sandia National Laboratory in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Many anti-nuclear activists and lab watchers see the debate over who should manage Los Alamos as obscuring a critical discussion of the role nuclear weapons play in the world today.

Both groups have also added smaller contractors with experience managing components of the nuclear weapons complex as junior partners. Meanwhile, the UT-Lockheed team has involved thirty universities listed as an "Alliance Academic Network" in its portfolio. Proposals from the two consortiums were due July 19, and the Department of Energy will pick a new management team by December 1.

The bidding war for Los Alamos has shaken the lab community and inspired a debate over who can best run the $2.2 billion a year operation. Most Los Alamos employees are not concerned with questions about the country’s weapons policy, according to Greg Mellow with the Los Alamos Study Group, a research organization that promotes disarmament. Instead, said Mellow, they "are mostly concerned about pensions, working conditions, and their identities as scientists."

There are misgivings among some employees at the lab about working for a corporation, said Mellow, who claimed most people there prefer to consider their workplace an academic institution. "People say, ‘If I wanted to work for a corporation, I would have done so earlier in my career,’" relayed Mellow.

But many anti-nuclear activists and lab watchers see the debate over who should manage Los Alamos as obscuring a critical discussion of the role nuclear weapons play in the world today.

Hugh Gusterson, an MIT anthropologist who has written two books based on his experience living and studying the culture of nuclear weapons labs, sees both bids as "conservative" in that they are headed by people entrenched in the weapons bureaucracy. "The real question is, ‘Do you need two nuclear weapons labs?’" Gusterson added, referring to Los Alamos and its "sister" lab in California, Lawrence-Livermore.

Arms control advocates fear that the Los Alamos competition is designed, in part, to make way for a resumption of warhead production.

Arjun Makhijani, an engineer and president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, a nonprofit organization that strives to make science accessible to laypersons, is even more blunt. "I have a date when I think the [University of California] should have gotten out of the nuclear weapons business," Makhijani said. "December, 1944 – when it was discovered that Germany did not have the Bomb."

Los Alamos is a flashpoint for arms control advocates because the facility is responsible for an estimated 80 percent of the nuclear weapons ever designed in the United States. In addition, lab administrators have historically had a hand in championing nuclear weapons and pooh-poohing arms control agreements and bans on testing, said Jackie Cabasso of the Western States Legal Foundation, an advocacy organization that specializes in supporting anti-nuclear activism.

Paul Robinson, who stepped down as the CEO of the Sandia operation to run the UT-Lockheed bid and will be director of Los Alamos if his team wins, has been a proponent of new, low-yield nuclear weapons such as so-called "mini-nukes" and "bunker-buster" warheads designed to take out deeply entrenched targets. In a 2001 "white paper" Robinson argued for a transformation of the nuclear stockpile, including the re-design of existing warheads and the development of low-yield nukes, to deal with "To Whom It May Concern" enemies, a term applied to any non-Russian states or terrorist groups

Naturally, Robinson also backed President Bush’s push – and Congress’s 2003 decision – to repeal the 1994 ban on low-yield nuclear weapons. Because the national labs rely almost entirely on federal funding, officials such as Robinson often find themselves promoting nuclear weapons to lawmakers.

Los Alamos National Laboratory and the companies associated with whichever team wins the bidding war are positioned to benefit from the largesse of a nuclear arms revival. President Bush has consistently asked Congress to fund new nuclear weapons; increased production of plutonium pits, the part of the bomb that renders it atomic; and a facelift to the Nevada Test Site in order to reduce the amount of time it would take to resume underground nuclear testing.

But Congress has trimmed most of the Bush administration’s requests for the past four years.

Still, many arms control advocates fear that the Los Alamos competition is designed, in part, to make way for a resumption of warhead production. Several Los Alamos critics have fingered plutonium pit production as a key to Los Alamos’s future. As part of the competition, bidders will be rewarded for demonstrating how they will meet the perceived need for more plutonium pits – ones that could go to refresh older warheads or be installed in new ones.

Currently, the lab is the only site in the US that can produce a pit certified for installation in a functional nuclear weapon. But a "Modern Pit Facility," capable of producing up to 450 pits per year, could find a home at Los Alamos. "The sense in Congress is that Los Alamos is really troubled," said Carah Ong, director of the Washington DC office of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation and a lobbyist for that organization. Congress thinks Los Alamos "needs some results-oriented focus," she told The NewStandard.. "That’s where pit production comes in because it gives Los Alamos the unique value that Congress is looking for."

Some Los Alamos critics are not sitting on the sidelines for the lab war games. Nuclear Watch in New Mexico and Tri-Valley Communities Against a Radioactive Environment (CAREs) in California have joined forces and sent the Department of Energy their alternative plan for the lab. Unlike UT-Lockheed and UC-Bechtel, the two watchdog groups are making their proposal public.

"Our emphasis is a pretty radical mission change by truly discouraging the proliferation of nuclear weapons through concrete example," Jay Coghlan of the activist group Nuclear Watch New Mexico told TNS. "We are proposing a fundamental realignment of the nuclear weapons program," he explained, by creating an Associate Directorship of Nuclear Nonproliferation. That position would be "responsible for encouraging and verifying compliance with the Non-Proliferation Treaty." Nuclear weapons-related projects would have to answer to the nonproliferation director.

This restructuring aligns with Nuclear Watch and Tri-Valley CAREs’ "proposed program of maintaining [but not advancing] nuclear weapons while they await dismantlement," according to the organizations’ press release.

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.


Forrest Wilder is a contributing journalist.

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