Between 1946 and 1958, the United States tested 67 nuclear bombs on the Marshall Islands, a string of coral atolls in the South Pacific. The combined explosive power of these detonations—108 megatons—was equivalent to that of 7,000 Hiroshima bombs, or an average of 1.6 such detonations every day for more than 12 years. This serial conversion of another people’s homeland into a death-stricken radioactive wasteland claimed the lives of hundreds, brought sickness and misery to thousands, and drove much of the Marshallese nation’s people out of their homeland. Despite U.S. government assurances that their land was “clean and safe,” the Marshallese who continued to live there, those who fled but later returned, and the descendants of both groups have suffered from disproportionately high rates of birth defects, cancer, thyroid problems, and infant mortality in the form of “jellyfish babies.”
During the decades of weapons testing dozens of nuclear weapons scientists, politicians, and University of California Regents traveled frequently to the Marshall Islands. From outposts located upwind of the nuclear blasts’ radioactive plumes, these elite spectators sought to revel firsthand in the spectacle of “thermo-nuclear fireballs rising above the Pacific Ocean.” The tests typically occurred in the morning and their audience would enjoy them while seated in Adirondack chairs, clad in sunglasses to block the glare from the towering infernos that engulfed the skyline.
The touring groups would sometimes stop in to shop at the military base post-exchange (PX) and then retire to UC Regent Edwin Pauley’s 25-acre Hawaiian estate for some additional merriment, before returning home with souvenirs from the nuclear blasts.
For over six decades, the University of California has been the United States government’s primary nuclear warhead contractor. The UC Regents have been managers of the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL)—the figurative “brains” of the U.S. nuclear weapons complex—since each facility’s inception in the mid-20th century. Together, these two would-be UC campuses have researched, designed, and tested every nuclear weapon in the U.S. arsenal. It has been a totally unique and unprecedented relationship between the U.S. nuclear military agencies and a university.
Decades have passed since the Marshall Islands testing program ended, but the boyish celebration of Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore nuclear weapons science continues, albeit more subtly.
Since their founding, LANL and LLNL have pursued nuclear weapons development relentlessly. LANL has furnished the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile with 65 different types of warheads along with LLNL’s 28. In the absence of Cold War arms race justifications, the nuclear weapons labs’ efforts have followed two primary tracks: development of “small- yield” and potentially “useable” nuclear warheads, and significantly upgraded “replacements” to existing warheads. One of LANL’s “modified” nuclear weapons designs, the B61 “mod” 11 “earth-penetrating” bomb, was completed in 1996. Washington has since threatened to use it against Syria, Iraq, and Iran.
Large-scale development of most new types of LANL and LLNL weapons designs has not yet begun, in large part due to several major policy defeats in Congress. Since 1992, a half-hearted de facto U.S. ban on nuclear weapons testing has also hampered the technical ability of the labs to develop new nukes. However, the most important step in the weapons labs’ drive toward renewed production of nuclear weaponry is quietly advancing, without even a substantive challenge by most arms control organizations. If constructed, the Los Alamos Chemical & Metallurgy Research Replacement (CMRR) building would be capable of building the plutonium pits (explosive cores) for roughly 100 new nuclear weapons per year.
Since 2005, UC Regents have formed a pair of high-stakes partnerships with the Bechtel Corporation and two other military-industrial firms—BWX Technologies and Washington Group International—in limited-liability corporations (LLC) known as Los Alamos National Security, LLC and Lawrence Livermore National Security, LLC. The latter firm also includes Texas A&M University. These for-profit entities now manage the nuclear weapons labs, with Bechtel and the UC serving as the lead partners.
Student protest: UC "Weds" Bechtel—photo from www.ucneclearfree.org
The landlord of LANL and LLNL is, in essence, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). The DOE provides over $4 billion per year to the UC-Bechtel limited liability corporations, which then directs this money toward specific weapons programs that are, at least in theory, mandated by Congress. The weapons labs currently receive roughly 1.5 times the DOE funding they received during the Cold War, adjusted for inflation.
In addition to serving as a manager of the weapons labs, UC has long been the nuclear weapons labs’ principal source for its scientific “prima donnas” (a term applied in this connection by General Leslie Groves, who oversaw the Manhattan Project). Since the inception of the Energy Department’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) in 2001, one of its 10 bench- marks for evaluating the weapons labs is how well they “utilize UC strengths to recruit, retain and develop the workforce basis.” Not surprisingly, then, as many as 40 percent of LLNL employees received their undergraduate degrees from UC campuses.
With regard to the weapons labs’ infiltration into various UC campuses, in October 2000, more than five years before the campus opened, then-LLNL Director Bruce Tarter signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with UC Merced Chancellor Carol Tomlinson-Keasey. Under the terms of the agreement, LLNL personnel helped recruit UC Merced’s entire founding science and engineering faculty. Each candidate was required to visit LLNL, meet with potential laboratory colleagues, tour laboratory facilities, and get briefed on the lab’s intimate partnership with the campus. To top it off, most of these new faculty members are now under multi-location appointments at both Merced and LLNL.
In explicitly colonial terms, the LLNL website describes Merced as “a resource for the Laboratory in meeting its core programmatic requirements and those of the U.S. Department of Energy.” Further, the LLNL 2001-06 Institutional Plan referred to Merced “as an important source of future employees for the Laboratory.”
National Science Labs
The nuclear weapons labs also like to “incorporate the UC image” in another way: public relations branding. In doing so, the labs promote the idea that they are not nuclear weapons labs, but multi-purpose “national science labs.” In reality, nuclear weapons continue to be the modus operandi of both LANL and LLNL. In 2006, 86 percent of LANL’s $1.854 billion Department of Energy budget was devoted to NNSA activities. The NNSA deals only with nuclear weapons—nothing else. LLNL’s work is even more disproportionately weighted toward nuclear weapons development.
In other words, UC’s reputation as a benign liberal university committed to scholarly values dovetails perfectly with the false image the weapons labs like to impart about themselves—that they are centers for “scientific advancement and exploration” (these are the words of the LANL website), rather than nuclear weapons labs. The 2003 NNSA Performance Appraisals for LANL and LLNL noted that the labs’ “effort to incorporate the UC image in addressing pipeline recruitment needs” was an especially useful strategy in meeting its employment objectives.
Over the years, the UC nuclear weapons lab lobby has played an instrumental role in undermining the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), initiating the Star Wars “missile defense” program, and lobbying for new nuclear weapons development at every turn. The U.S. House of Representatives’ Appropriations Committee noted in 2001 that one of the nuclear weapons lab’s alone was funding 70 trips a week to lobby in Washington, DC. Throughout this process, the UC’s prestige and reputation for scientific objectivity has lent the LANL and LLNL lobby credibility no corporate defense contractor could hope to enjoy.
UC’s contributions to the U.S. war machine extend well beyond its management of the nuclear weapons laboratories. According to the latest statistics made available by the National Science Foundation, UC is also the leading university contractor for other forms of military research. In 2005 UC’s 10 campuses received $168.47 million to conduct scientific programs for the Department of Defense. This research ranges from efforts at UC Santa Barbara to create “better materials for uniforms or armor, faster and lighter computers and batteries and more elaborate sensors” to extensive research at UC San Diego on naval weapons systems.
One of the more prominent UC- connected military research programs is the Institute for Collaborative Bio- technologies (ICB) based at UCSB, with subcontracts at the California Institute of Technology and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Speaking to the House Armed Services Committee in March 2004, Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army for Research and Technology Thomas Killion said of the ICB, “This will influence the development of technology that improves military capabilities in the areas of precision strike, signature management, network design and implementation, and ‘identification of friend or foe.’”
Resisting UC Weapons Labs
For nearly as long as the University of California nuclear weapons management arrangement has existed, UC students, faculty, staff, alumni, and many other nuclear abolitionists have resisted it. Several iterations of these campaigns have come and gone through the years.
In fall 1970 the UC War Crimes Committee at Berkeley organized two “hearings” to examine UC’s role in the military-academic-industrial complex. In February 1971 the Committee organized a protest against the U.S. invasion of Laos. Several thousand students stormed the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) building to call for the removal of U.S. nuclear weapons from Thailand.
The UC Nuclear Weapons Labs Conversion Project formed in 1976. Within a few years of campaigning, the group had won an endorsement for its basic position by then-Governor Jerry Brown, many members of the state legislature, and a sizable portion of UC faculty. However, it failed to alter the UC weapons lab management arrangement. By 1982, this effort evolved into the Livermore Action Group, which organized some of the largest non-violent direct action arrests in U.S. history. In August 1982 a non-violent though somewhat militant crowd of nearly 10,000 protested at the lab’s gates; 1,475 were arrested. In June 1983 over 3,000 people rallied and 1,028 were arrested (including about 50 UC Berkeley students) at LLNL as part of a national day of action to “protest, halt, and disrupt the design, production, transport, and deployment of nuclear weapons worldwide for at least one working day.”
Student protest at UC Regents’ meeting—photo by Josh Sonnenfeld
In 1990 the UC Academic Senate conducted a UC-wide faculty survey on whether the UC Regents should sever the UC’s nuclear weapons ties. An overwhelming majority of faculty (63.6 percent) responded favorably. Nevertheless, the Regents voted to continue to manage the laboratories at their September 1990 meeting.
In recent years, the UC weapons lab severance campaign has returned with a vengeance. This past May, more than 40 UC students, alumni, and faculty conducted a 9-day hunger strike to call for UC withdrawal from nuclear weapons lab management. The action failed to meet its ultimate objective, but it did generate considerable momentum and support for the campaign. In coming months, for instance, students of UC Santa Barbara and UC Santa Cruz student government-sanctioned “laboratory oversight committees” plan to conduct on-site inspections of “known and suspected nuclear weapons development sites” at both LANL and LLNL.
For UC students, opposing UC nuclear weapons lab management is not simply a matter of educational reform. It is also a matter of pursuing an effective strategy toward abolishing nuclear weapons and challenging U.S. empire. If we are ever to transform that empire, we must do so by—among other means—severing its ties to the institutions we participate in and contribute to.
Will Parrish is co-authoring a book, with Darwin BondGraham, entitled University of Mass Destruction: Nuclear Weapons, U.S. Imperialism, and the University of California.