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Privatizing the Apocalypse


Started as the super-secret “Project Y” in 1943, the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico has long been the keystone institution of the American nuclear-weapons producing complex. It was the birthplace of Fat Man and Little Boy, the two nuclear bombs the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. Last year, the University of California, which has managed the lab for the Department of Energy since its inception, decided to put Los Alamos on the auction block. In December 2005, construction giant Bechtel won a $553 million yearly management contract to run the sprawling complex, which employs more than 13,000 people and has an estimated $2.2 billion annual budget.

 

“Privatization” has been in the news ever since George W. Bush became president. His administration has radically reduced the size of government, turning over to private companies critical governmental functions involving prisons, schools, water, welfare, Medicare, and utilities as well as war-fighting, and is always pushing for more of the same. Outside of Washington, the pitfalls of privatization are on permanent display in Iraq, where companies like Halliburton have reaped billions in contracts. Performing jobs once carried out by members of the military — from base building and mail delivery to food service — they have bilked the government while undermining the safety of American forces by providing substandard services and products. Halliburton has been joined by a cottage industry of military-support companies responsible for everything from transportation to interrogation. On the war front, private companies are ubiquitous, increasingly indispensable, and largely unregulated — a lethal combination.

 

Now, the long arm of privatization is reaching deep into an almost unimaginable place at the heart of the national security apparatus — the laboratory where scientists learned to harness the power of the atom more than 60 years ago and created weapons of apocalyptic proportions.

 

Profane Problem or Prolific Profit?

 

Nuclear weapons are many things to many people — the sword of Damocles or the guarantor of American global supremacy, the royal path to the apocalypse or atoms for peace. But in each notion, they are treated as idols — jealously-guarded, shrouded in code, surrounded by sacred secrecy. That is changing.

 

Private companies have long played a role in the nuclear complex, but it’s been a peripheral one. For example, Kaiser-Hill, a remediation company, is cleaning up radioactive waste at Rocky Flats, the Denver, Colorado complex that manufactured nuclear weapons. At Idaho Falls, another company, CH2M, is mopping up the mess left behind after the construction of 52 nuclear reactors. BWX and Honeywell formed a new company along with Bechtel to manage and operate the Pantex Plant in Texas which assembled nuclear weapons throughout the Cold War. At least ten different subcontractors are involved in managing the Hanford nuclear complex. But the famed nuclear laboratories, Los Alamos, Lawrence Livermore, and Sandia — where the high priests of nuclear physics are free to explore the outer realms of their craft — have long been above prosaic bottom-line or board-room considerations. Until this year, that is.

 

At Los Alamos, the University of California has already been replaced by a “limited liability corporation,” says Tyler Przybylek of the Department of Energy’s Evaluation Board; and, more generally, the writing is on the containment wall. Nuclear laboratories are no longer to be intellectual institutions devoted to science but part of a corporate-business model where research, design, and ultimately the weapons themselves will become products to be marketed. The new dress code will be suits and ties, not lab coats and safety glasses. Under Bechtel, new management will lead to a “tightly structured organization” that will “drive efficiency,” predicts John Browne, who directed the lab at Los Alamos from 1997-2003. “If there is a product the government wants,” he concludes, “they will necessarily be focused on that. A lot more money will be at stake.”

 

Los Alamos was the first to go. Now, the management contract for the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, is on the auction block as well.

 

Bechtel’s Boondoggles

 

Many say strong corporate oversight will correct a legacy of embarrassing missteps at Los Alamos. The keystone of the nuclear complex, it has been dogged by missing classified computer disks, cost overruns on its expensive new projects, and an outspoken cadre of scientists who found their voice on LANL: The Real Story, a blog where once deferential employees blew off steam and exposed lapses in lab management.

 

The idea is that, under private management, this legacy of money wasted and dreams deferred can do an abrupt u-turn. But the question is: Can Bechtel (or any other private military contractor) usher in a new era of nuclear responsibility? Pete Domenici, Republican Senator and Chairman of the powerful Energy and Water Committee, thinks so. In January, he claimed that “this great lab will thrive under the management team led by Bechtel.”

 

But a look at Bechtel’s record might not inspire others to Domenici’s confidence. The California-based construction giant has a long history of big projects, big promises, bigger budgets and even bigger failures.

 

In Boston, Bechtel was put in charge of the “Big Dig,” the reconstruction of Interstate 93 beneath the city. In 1985, the price tag for the project was estimated at about $2.5 billion. Now, it is a whopping $14.6 billion (or $1.8 billion a mile), making it the most expensive stretch of highway in the world. Near San Diego, citizens are still paying the bills for cost over-runs at a nuclear power plant where Bechtel installed one of the reactors backwards.

 

In 2003, Bechtel took this winning track record to Baghdad, where it blew billions in a string of unfinished projects and unfathomable errors. The company reaped tens of millions of dollars in contracts to repair Iraq’s schools, for example, but an independent report found that many of the schools Bechtel claimed to have completely refitted, “haven’t been touched,” and a number of schools remained “in shambles.” One “repaired” school was found by inspectors be overflowing with “unflushed sewage.”

 

Bechtel also has a $1.03 billion contract to oversee important aspects of Iraq’s infrastructure reconstruction, including water and sewage. Despite many promises, startling numbers of Iraqi families continue to lack access to clean water, according to information gathered by independent journalist Dahr Jamail. The company made providing potable water to southern Iraq one of its top priorities, promising delivery within the first 60 days of the program. One year later, rising epidemics of water-borne illnesses like cholera, kidney stones and diarrhea pointed to the failure of Bechtel’s mission.

 

Outside of its ill-fated reconstruction contracts in Iraq, Bechtel is not known as a large military contractor, but the company has been quietly moving into the nuclear arena. It helped build a missile-defense site in the South Pacific, runs the Nevada Test Site where the United States once performed hundreds of above-and underground nuclear tests. Bechtel is also the “environmental manager” at the Oak Ridge National Lab, which stores highly-enriched uranium, and is carrying out design work at the Yucca Mountain repository where the plan to store 77,000 tons of nuclear waste has environmentalists and community activists up in arms.

 

At Washington State’s Hanford Waste Treatment Plant, Bechtel is working on technology to turn nuclear waste into glass. But the estimated costs of building the facility to do that have doubled in one year to about $10 billion while the completion date slipped from 2011 to 2017. Members of Congress have proposed that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission take over management of the project from Bechtel because of its cost overruns and delays.

 

Proliferation’s New Meaning

 

Given this track record, it’s hard to make the case that Bechtel assumes the helm at Los Alamos out of an altruistic, even patriotic, desire to impose clean, lean corporate management on a complacent institution long overfed at the public trough. The question remains: Why this urge to privatize the apocalypse?

 

To answer that question, you have to begin with the post-Cold War quest of the nuclear laboratories for a new identity and raison d’être. The dismantling of the Berlin Wall, the loss of the other superpower as a nuclear twin and target, and an international shift in favor of nuclear disarmament sent Los Alamos and the whole U.S. nuclear complex into existential crisis: Who are we? What is our role? What do we do now that nuclear weapons have no obvious role in a world of, at best, medium-sized military enemies? Throughout the Clinton years, these questions multiplied while the nuclear arsenal remained relatively stable. More recently, with a lot of fancy footwork, a few friends in Congress, and the ear of a White House eager to be known for something other than the Long War on global terrorism, the labs finally came up with a winning solution that has Bechtel and other military contractors seeing dollar signs.

 

They found their salvation in a few lines of the Nuclear Posture Review, released in January 2002, where the Bush administration asserted: “The need is clear for a revitalized nuclear weapons complex that will be able, if directed, to design, develop, manufacture, and certify new warheads in response to new national requirements; and maintain readiness to resume underground testing if required.”

 

There’s gold in that there sentence. During the Cold War, spending on nuclear weapons averaged $4.2 billion a year (in current dollars). Almost two decades after the “nuclear animosity” between the two great superpowers ended, the United States is spending one-and-a-half times the Cold War average on nuclear weapons. In 2001, the weapons-activities budget of the Department of Energy, which oversees the nuclear weapons complex through its “semi-autonomous” National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), totaled $5.19 billion; and a “revitalized nuclear weapons complex,” ready to “design, develop, manufacture, and certify new warheads,” means a more than billion-dollar jump in spending to $6.4 billion by fiscal year 2006.

 

And that’s just the beginning. The NNSA’s five-year “National Security Plan” calls for annual increases to reach $7.76 billion by 2009. David Hobson, Republican congressional representative from Ohio, calls this kind of budgeting “the ultimate white-collar welfare,” saying that the weapons complex can be “viewed as a jobs program for PhDs.”

 

He’s right. That’s a lot of money for a few labs and a few thousand scientists. And private military contractors large and small are all over it.

 

Entering Acronym Land

 

To justify this huge jump in spending, the nuclear laboratories have cooked up plans for an alphabet soup of projects as part of the SSMP, scientists are pushing — to mention just a few of the acronyms on the table right now — ASCC, MESA, the RRWP, the ICFHY campaign and the RNEP.

 

In the interest of not putting everyone to sleep, we can take a closer look at just a few of the Bush administration’s proliferating nuclear projects. Under the umbrella of Stockpile Stewardship Management (SSMP), scientists are working to safeguard the stockpile of nuclear weapons and materials so it is not ravaged by time and neglect. The Reliable Replacement Warhead Program (RRWP) will exchange existing warheads for more “reliable” (read: more powerful) ones. There are plans underway to develop the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator (RNEP) and other “useable” new nuclear weapons supposedly to meet new threats by new enemies — “rogue states” like Iran — in future preemptive anti-proliferation wars. Under each of these programs are many other acronym-heavy, cash-rich programs that seem to lead nowhere — except toward further nuclear proliferation.

 

The Inertial Confinement Fusion and High Yield Campaign is just one of the more outlandish and expensive of these projects. It proposes using lasers to replicate what happens inside an actual nuclear explosion in weapons labs. Sounds simple enough, right? The Nuclear Ignition Facility — where the lasers will do their work — is the single largest project in the NNSA budget and, according to analyst Christopher Paine, “quite possibly the most expensive experimental facility ever built.” The Department of Energy projects $3.5 billion in costs for this alone, but the independent environmental group, the National Resources Defense Council, puts the figure higher yet — at $5.32 billion — and that money will be spent before anyone can even demonstrate that the system works.

 

The Age of Nuclear Terror?

 

Do nuclear weapons have a role in the “Age of Terror” — other than as potential weapons for terrorist groups? In a new and ever-shifting environment of emerging regional powers and wars that transcend national boundaries, the Bush administration is taking a have-it-both-ways approach: It is pushing aggressive non-proliferation policies for chosen enemy nations and embracing a policy of accelerated nuclear proliferation for itself. How much harder will it be in the future to dissuade other powers from building nuclear weapons when the American nuclear industry and its weapons labs have switched even more fully into private mode and the profit-motive is increasingly at stake in global nuclear planning? These and many other questions unfortunately remain unasked. Yet, a new era of nuclear weapons for profit threatens to turn Armageddon into a paying operation.

 

During the height of the Cold War, when competition between the nuclear laboratories seemed to rival the superpower stand-off, a Lawrence Livermore scientist posted a sign that read: “Remember, the Soviets are the Competition, Los Alamos is the Enemy.”

 

In a new era of potential corporate antagonism over apocalyptic weaponry, will there be a sign at the Bechtel-run nuclear lab emblazoned with: “Remember, the Terrorists are the Competition, Lockheed Martin is the Enemy”?

 

 

Frida Berrigan (berrigaf@newschool.edu) is a Senior Research Associate at the World Policy Institute’s Arms Trade Resource Center. Her primary research areas with the project include nuclear-weapons policy, war profiteering and corporate crimes, weapons sales to areas of conflict, and military-training programs. She is the author of a number of Institute reports, most recently Weapons at War 2005: Promoting Freedom or Fueling Conflict.

 

[This article first appeared on Tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news, and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing, co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The End of Victory Culture.]

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