Los Alamos: Learning to love the bomb

By Austin Van Zant
April 2004; pages 3, 15; Number 5.

Nuclear life
Drawing By Kidd Bing

University of Texas System officials, vying to secure a contract to manage the nuclear research facility, Los Alamos National Laboratories, are facing criticism that the science primarily used at the laboratory would not increase research opportunities for the University. Critics also argue that the University will not be able to provide adequate oversight to fix problems with mismanagement that have plagued the laboratory for many years.

In February, UT System officials officially announced their bid for management of Los Alamos National Laboratory, with an initial investment of $500,000. The University of California has managed the lab since its inception and is competing with UT to continue its contract. The UT System could spend up to $6 million to secure the contract.

The UT System said it is seeking management of Los Alamos because research opportunities at the laboratory could provide economic benefits for the UT System and the state of Texas.

One major misconception of the nuclear weapon research at Los Alamos is that they use state-of-the-art technology, said Greg Mello, director of the Los Alamos Study Group, a nuclear disarmament organization. In fact, Mello said, Los Alamos workers specialize in manufacturing bomblets, mechanisms that control the bomb's explosion. The technology used to construct Los Alamos bomblets is a few decades old and the basic structure has little room for technological improvement. In this way, the science of nuclear weapon research at Los Alamos often boils down to simply refining details on existing nuclear weapons in a bomb factory based heavily on routine.

A common goal of nuclear weapon scientists is to discover how to produce a better yield from a nuclear bomb with the same materials and same weight, a type of research a field of research that doesn't allow for too many cutting-edge research opportunities. John Manley, who worked on development of the first atomic weapons at Los Alamos, called this research "as exciting as designing a new toothbrush."

"[There is] a distinction between a true scientist, in terms of motivation, and these people who work in technical fields," Manley said in the book, At the Heart of the Bomb. "Research [at Los Alamos] had become routinized. Tied to the imperatives of the military, it was only a shadow of what it would be were the government's 'programmatic' constraints removed. True scientists seek truth, not better toothbrushes."

The University of California has managed Los Alamos since its inception in 1943 and, as a perk, the lab retains the title of an educational, non-profit entity. Since it is managed by a university, the lab is excused from paying $60 million per year from state taxes, nearly half of which would be allocated to education in New Mexico, according to the Coalition to Demilitarize the University of California.

UC's management of Los Alamos has not gone unopposed. UC students began holding demonstrations during the 1960s, and faculty members began publishing reports opposing the lab in the 1970s. These students and faculty did not believe that managing Los Alamos brought research opportunities and educational experiences to the UC System.

Another major impediment to the existence of a truly academic environment at Los Alamos is the barrier constructed by classified projects and national security. Research projects are tightly controlled and assigned in a top-down manner, with scientists having little control. The Department of Defense and the Department of Energy write the projects - not the university manager or the researchers themselves - and this is fundamentally at odds with the free pursuit knowledge - one of the hallmarks of academia.

Classified projects do not allow for students and faculty to publish their work, an integral step to advancing educational opportunities at the University. According to the 1989 UC faculty Jendresen Report, "'Academic freedom' as defined by the [American Association of University Professors] to include 'full freedom in research and in the publication of the results' is inoperative in the mission-oriented, task-assigned and highly-classified environment that characterizes a large part of Laboratory programs."

Critics also argue that mismanagement within the lab will be harmful to the University and difficult to overcome. Former employee Chris Mechels characterized lab management as a criminal culture of corruption, secrecy and a lack of accountability to outside citizens.

Mechels worked for 11 years at Los Alamos and, since his retirement, founded and later became vice president of Citizens for Los Alamos National Laboratory Employee Rights, the first employee organization at Los Alamos. Mechels is a longstanding critic of UC's management of Los Alamos, and he is delighted that the contract is facing competition. However, problems at the lab are more of a testament to the culture of Los Alamos rather than UC's management, Mechels said. He said UT would not provide adequate oversight for the lab and make little or no inroads in reforming it.

In 1978, Los Alamos lobbied to rewrite California's pro-union law, leading to the loss of the lab's workers' right to unionize. Mechels' research and testimony later led to modification of California's Higher Education Employer-Employee Relations law to allow Los Alamos employees the right to organize a union.

Mechels said that unions are necessary to combat the dismal working conditions at the lab. Over 900 worker accidents occurred in the four-year period between 1993 and 1997, according to an investigation into an explosion in 1997. One such accident involved Efren Martinez. In January 1996, Martinez was directed to excavate a site with a shovel and jackhammer in the basement of a building at Los Alamos. He struck a 13.2 kilovolt electrical line with the jackhammer, stopped breathing for six minutes, and remains in a coma. This accident stemmed directly from managers' orders to get the job done as quickly as possible, putting safety at a lower priority than expedient work, Mechels said.

Disregard for worker safety is just one of the facets of the criminal culture at Los Alamos. Another is the power entrusted to unaccountable lab managers as demonstrated by past cases, such as the Wen Ho Lee incident. Lee was fired in March 1999 after he was accused of espionage for China. The Taiwanese scientist was illegally detained before his trial in solitary confinement for nine months, and leaks indicate this was an intimidation technique to "break" him. According to former Attorney General Janet Reno, Lee had downloaded "very sensitive" information and "made it available on an unsecured computer subject to hackers ... carefully, deliberately, willfully." While Lee eventually pleaded guilty to one count of mishandling nuclear defense data, the judge sentenced Lee to the nine months he had already served, criticizing those handling the case for Lee's prolonged imprisonment.

Mismanagement of the lab has led to other unfortunate outcomes. Two hard drives containing classified information were discovered missing in early 2000. They were later found behind a copier in the area from which they were lost, so the FBI conducted an investigation. However, six lab managers and U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici (R-New Mexico) stopped the FBI's investigation. The lab managers interrogated by the FBI gave conflicting answers and generally refused to cooperate. But when the Grand Jury in Albuquerque, New Mexico, caught wind of this "obstruction of justice," they ran into Domenici, who chairs the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources that writes the budget for Los Alamos and the other national labs. Domenici allegedly told the FBI to "get off the [lab's] back" since their investigation was "bad for morale." Since he is also the Chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, Domenici has substantial control over the FBI's budget. As a result, Mechels claims, the FBI stopped the investigation.

The UT System may have trouble improving the management problems that have plagued UC in recent years, given the fact that UT would have to override Senator Domenici, who has been labeled "Senator Strangelove" in the past. The 1995 Galvin Committee Report, prepared by the Task Force on Alternative Futures for the Department of Energy national laboratories, found that, while Los Alamos is technically classified as a government owned, contractor operated facility, it is "nothing but a government owned and more government operated system." So, despite UT's title as manager, it would have little leverage on the lab's improvement and subsequent benefit to the University.

Charles Sorber, Special Engineering Advisor for Academic Affairs for the UT System, is heading the bid for Los Alamos. Contact him at or 512-322-3776 with opinions or questions about the universities involvement with the lab.

Also, UT System Chancellor Mark Yudof can be contacted at or at 512-499-4201.

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Van Zant, Austin. "Los Alamos: Learning to love the bomb". April 2004. Issue. Vol. 1. No. 5. Pages 3, 15.