UC needs 'industrial partner' for lab bid

Regents advised to share responsibility with private firm

By Keay Davidson
The San Francisco Chronicle
SEPTEMBER 23, 2004

The University of California should seek an "industrial partner" to share its responsibilities for managing two nuclear weapons labs, Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore, a top advisory panel told the UC Board of Regents at its meeting Wednesday in San Francisco.

Should the regents try to renew UC's Los Alamos contract in a forthcoming competition sponsored by the U.S. Energy Department, "an industrial partner would be necessary to be successful in the competition," William L. Friend, chair of the UC President's Council on National Laboratories, told the regents.

A partnership, he said, could "bring some discipline to the (Los Alamos) operation" -- making a UC bid for Los Alamos more attractive to the Energy Department.

UC President Robert Dynes said later that UC officials have already been holding "exploratory discussions" with a number of possible industrial partners.

Dynes gave no names, but S. Robert Foley, UC vice president for laboratory administration, mentioned recent but abortive discussions with the aerospace giant Lockheed Martin during the meeting.

"We went quite far down the road with Lockheed Martin" in discussing such a partnership, Foley noted. "We had a number of meetings ... but they backed away."

UC has also held "chit chats" about possible alliances with other firms, Foley said. He also said he doesn't expect the U.S. Energy Department to issue contract proposals for the forthcoming Los Alamos competition until around January, several months later than was generally expected.

Friend, who retired in 1998 as executive vice president and director of Bechtel Group Inc., said an industrial partnership would allow UC to spend more time supervising the scientific research at Los Alamos while the partner could assume many of the day-to-day responsibilities -- for example, financial management and security guards.

Los Alamos staffers have been repeatedly attacked and investigated for their mishandling of classified data and finances. Years of on-again, off-again scandals over UC management of the labs peaked last week, when Los Alamos Director George "Pete" Nanos fired four staffers and forced another into retirement.

The current Los Alamos contract expires in September 2005, and the controversy has raised doubts about whether UC could win the forthcoming competition for the next contract.

Earlier in the meeting, in a regents-sponsored debate over the future of the labs, Walter Kohn, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist at UC Santa Barbara, pleaded with UC to skip the forthcoming contract competition and to end its tie to the New Mexico nuclear weapons lab.

Kohn said that after six decades in the nuclear weapons business, UC should get out of it and divert its brainpower to preparing California and the nation for global warming and future energy shortages -- which, he suggested, are bigger threats than terrorism.

Nuclear weapons work "is wholly incompatible with the (UC's self-proclaimed) criteria for public service," Kohn said during his otherwise amiable confrontation with a UC Berkeley professor of nuclear engineering, William E. Kastenberg. The regents invited both men to discuss the pros and cons of competing for the next Los Alamos contract.

Kohn also suggested that UC might be violating an international treaty against nuclear proliferation by operating Los Alamos, where scientists are designing "smaller and, quote, more 'useable' nuclear weapons." By engaging in nuclear weapons work, UC "lends a misleading cloak of academic respectability" to strategic notions such as "preemptive strike," in which a nation would launch nuclear weapons at a foe ostensibly to prevent being attacked first, he said.

Instead, UC should be planning for future energy shortages and global warming crises, Kohn said. He cited solar-electric energy as a research area worth new emphasis, although "there's still lot of work that needs to be done" to make solar power economically competitive with other major energy sources.

"(British Prime Minister) Tony Blair has just declared ... climate change is the most severe problem we're facing today -- more serious even than the threat of terrorism," noted Kohn, who shared the 1998 Nobel Prize in chemistry and founded UCSB's famed Institute of Theoretical Physics.

In his much briefer address, Kastenberg urged the regents to seek to renew the Los Alamos contract. He stressed the advantages of having the nation's nuclear weapons complex in the hands of the most scientifically expert personnel possible, such as those found at UC.

Kastenberg also cited the appeal and value of the nuclear labs' facilities and equipment -- which "are unparalleled in the world" -- for teaching students.

Alluding to the Los Alamos scandals, Kastenberg acknowledged that "our (UC's) reputation is at stake due to the events of the last two years." But UC is best positioned to run the labs, "given our prestige, reputation, experience."

Regent Jodi Anderson briefly expressed interest in Kohn's point about a possible violation of international law and suggested that the regents discuss the matter on a future occasion.

Afterward, asked about Kohn's remarks, UC President Dynes acknowledged that, three decades ago, he felt personally uneasy when Los Alamos officials invited him to advise them on science and technology issues. But after a while, he changed his mind and decided "I would rather have some influence over the decisions (about what happens at Los Alamos) than be a bystander," he said Wednesday.

E-mail Keay Davidson at kdavidson@sfchronicle.com