Former UT Watch member testifies to UT Board of Regents against Los Alamos bid

April 28, 2005

Good morning. My name is Austin Van Zant, and I'm here to briefly speak not on behalf of UT Watch, which I co-founded my freshman year, or my current employer, the Legislative Study Group - a caucus of the Texas House of Representatives, but simply as an alumnus of the University of Texas at Austin and a concerned community member.

Thank you very much for inviting me to come back to again address each of you on this contentious issue. I must say that I am surprised to be back, especially since I thought that as a nation we wanted leaders who showed courage and conviction in their forward-thinking decisions, not those who can't make up their minds and flip-flop...

But I appreciate the open-mindedness. I appreciate the debate and being able to again attempt to dissuade you from bidding on Los Alamos. I must say that I'm still against this decision, despite the progress made in drafting the RFP. I understand that the contract is now more lucrative and that partnering with a corporation like Lockheed Martin could be a better proposal than going it alone.

However, there is a reason why Los Alamos is up for bid: The lab is in dire need of repair. With its extensive history with the Department of Defense and management of the Sandia National Laboratory, Lockheed Martin could by itself turn around Los Alamos without the help of the UT System.

I see no problems in collaborating with non-nuclear projects at our national laboratories, except that UT needs to be more candid regarding the actual nature of its current collaborative projects. For the past year and a half, UT-Austin has been working closely with Sandia to develop a high intensity laser known as the petawatt laser, and that work is expected to be enhanced under the MOU formalized earlier this month. According to the Sandia publication "News Notes" in April 2002(pdf):

Presently there is a nationwide effort to develop "petawatt" lasers (1 PW = 1000 TW) at several locations across the country. The goal of this effort is to develop high-power lasers to support the nation's nuclear weapons complex ... Thus, petawatt-class laser facilities have been proposed for construction at Sandia ... [and] the Univ. of Texas-Austin.

In September 2003, UT-Austin announced that the Department of Energy had granted the University $1 million to develop what would become Texas High Intensity Laser Science Group. The fiscal year 2006 Congressional budget allocated(pdf) UT-Austin $3 million through the Center to further its work on the laser.

Specifically, the petawatt laser, once developed, will be used for testing the nuclear weapons stockpile without actual explosions in Nevada. This laser radiography that generates protons will be the next step after the current x-ray radiography for taking pictures of simulated nuclear reactions. X-ray radiography of nuclear weapons is currently done at Los Alamos's Dual Axis Radiographic Hydrodynamic Test (DAHRT) facility. All of this leads us down the road to being able to test the designs of new nuclear weapons, since we know that the current ones work.

So, to reiterate, the University of Texas at Austin is currently aiding the development of a new nuclear arms race without technically working on nuclear weapons. I really wish that UT would be more straight-forward to students, community members, and the media about its commitment to non-nuclear research projects if it is to consider working so closely with laboratories explicitly committed to researching and developing nuclear weapons.

As for a partnership with Los Alamos, I honestly believe that Los Alamos needs UT much more than UT needs Los Alamos. The work at Los Alamos, including nuclear weapons R&D, is in a sense validated by explicit association with a university. Attaching UT's name to the lab would only help the lab boost its image as one that promotes academic freedom. However, several experts have said one of the traditional strengths of the lab, its quasi-academic environment, may now be its greatest weakness. Concerns over ensuring the safety of our nation's nuclear secrets are now paramount, especially in light of a shut down that lasted for 6 months last year - starting on July 16th, the day I last urged you not to bid - and that cost American taxpayers anywhere from $500 million to $1 billion. The entire world paid close attention to the security faults and management problems at the lab. Everyone faulted the manager, the University of California, more than any other entity involved with the lab.

Several events led to the decision to shut it down. First, in June 2004, Los Alamos misplaced two keys to Technical Area 18, a site that contains highly enriched uranium and plutonium, for most of the day. In early July, two zip disks containing information on nuclear weapons were initially reported missing but were later found to have never even existed in the first place. Then, one week later, a 20 year old intern was zapped in the eye with the laser she was using for an experiment. Then came the decision by Director Nanos decided to shut down the lab and 23 employees, that Nanos called "cowboys" and "buttheads," were either fired or placed on leave in the ensuing weeks.

The lab subsequently drew sharp criticisms from all angles. Everyday citizens who had never heard of Los Alamos before were suddenly concerned about the safety of their country's nuclear secrets. Lawmakers flew to Los Alamos to speak with lab management. Even New Mexico Senator Pete Domenici, who called himself Los Alamos' "proudest defender" in a letter he wrote in the days following the decision to shut down the lab, admitted that "in Washington [D.C.], Los Alamos' reputation as a crown jewel of science is being eclipsed by a reputation as being both dysfunctional and untouchable."

Administrators of the University of California bore the brunt of all the antagonism and criticisms - from lab employees to federal lawmakers - as the lab's manager. Colorado Senator Wayne Allard proposed legislation that the federal government would have to cut its ties with UC and bar the university from bidding on future contracts. Needless to say, the name of the most prestigious university system in the world was dragged through the mud last fall.

It makes no sense to put the University's name on the line in light of these events and the current world opinion of the laboratory. Students and faculty would be the ones to pay the price for this proposed association. There are other, better ways to improve the prestige of the University and increase research opportunities for our physics and engineering departments without the controversy, without the substantial risk. I don't want UT's name dragged through the mud because of association with this dysfunctional, untouchable lab. You could provide true vision to benefit the System, students, faculty, and citizens of this state by finding ways to create a national sustainable energy laboratory or to improve UT-Austin's Center for Energy & Environmental Resources. I expect more from my alma mater.

With that, I hope you consider my comments, as well as those by students, faculty, and community members not here today, in making your ultimate decision, and I welcome any questions you might have.