Editorial by Fort Worth Star-Telegram

Response by UT Watch
July 26, 2004

The UT System's board of regents is engaging in the kind of outside-the-norm vision that universities should be exhibiting by considering pursing a contract to manage the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

UT Watch: There is nothing "visionary" about UT's decision to bid for Los Alamos. The idea has been around - and has been covered by Texas media - since at least 1996. Furthermore, bidding to take over a nuclear laboratory doesn't take courage, vision, or foresight; it takes political connections, which are in no shortage these days between Washington and Texas. Far from visionary, UT managing Los Alamos would be about as smart as any university trying to manage a sprawling, dangerous, embattled national laboratry. As evidenced by 60 years of UC management, universities are simply not equipped to provide security and expertise for facilities like Los Alamos.

The advantages for the university system's scientists and advanced-degree students should be obvious to all -- even state Rep. Lon Burnam, who protests the idea, based on the lab's work in the nuclear field.

UT Watch: There is no reason to believe that the management contract would bring about any increased research opportunities. Although that may have been true sometime in the past, Los Alamos has been competing for the best scientists on a national level - with no preferential treatment for the contractor - for quite some time.

As reported by the Chronicle of Higher Education, “[Former University of California President Richard] Atkinson has repeatedly said he believes UC scientists would receive similar access to Los Alamos, regardless of its manager. Sheldon Landsberger, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Texas at Austin, concurs. Many of his students work at the lab. ‘We get funded from Los Alamos, and we're not a part of the University of California,’ he says.”

Physics professor and associate dean for research and facilities Peter Riley told the Daily Texan, "I don't see very many benefits that would arise. I see a lot of difficulties, and the difficulties outweigh the benefits." Riley has also researched at Los Alamos as a UT-Austin professor. Fellow physics professor Roger Bengston stated, “I have interacted with people at Los Alamos on a variety of scientific topics. I cannot imagine that these interactions would be facilitated by UT holding the contract to manage Los Alamos.” Riley added, “I do have concerns of UT taking over operations at the lab. I think it would be a big undertaking. I'm not sure we are well-equipped to do this.” Both Bengston and Riley doubted how much Los Alamos could help recruitment of faculty and said they believed UT-Austin would draw graduate students and professors, regardless of the lab."

Burnam criticized the possibility after UT System Chancellor Mark Yudof raised the issue at the July 16 regents' meeting.

The lab's mission to "develop and apply science and technology to ensure the safety and reliability of the U.S. nuclear deterrent" is apparently anathema to what the state university system should be doing, in Burnam's estimation.

UT Watch: Quoting from the PR-driven mission statement of LANL is hardly the wisest way to get at the heart of what Los Alamos does and is. Los Alamos is one of the main executors of the Stockpile Stewardship Program, which purports to only maintain and ensure the safety of the nuclear stockpile, but in actuality the program includes designing, testing, and constructing new nuclear weapons. Even the Department of Energy has admitted as much. In a 1996 publication, the DOE stated one of the mandates of the Program: "Ability to design new warheads will be retained by DOE at its defense programs (DP) laboratories.; Los Alamos, Lawrence Livermore, and Sandia National Laboratory." Such work undermines the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty.

But the Fort Worth legislator, who is the director of the Dallas Peace Center, is ignoring the second prong of the lab's multifaceted mission: "to reduce the threat of weapons of mass destruction, proliferation and terrorism."

UT Watch: Non-proliferation work constitues about 6% of the total Los Alamos budget, paltry compared to the approximately 75% that goes toward nuclear-related activities. In fact, the Bush administration’s 2005 budget proposal, a report by the Center for Defense Information forcefully pointed out, would massively underfund international non-proliferation programs by about $2 billion while calling for huge increases in new nuclear programs here. The spending on non-proliferation programs that Bush did propose "is mitigated," the report continued, "by funding put into new nuclear weapons programs, as other countries will be less likely to cooperate with the United States on non-proliferation projects if we act to counter those objectives." Other countries, the CDI concluded, "will see [Bush funding proposals] as an indication that the United States is not serious about cooperating on non-proliferation programs since it continues to augment its own nuclear weapons program." Analysis conducted by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) suggested that stated plans for arsenal reduction is contradicted by the administration’s own projections of the number of warheads over the next few years. "The total number of warheads remains essentially the same," said the NRDC.

The lab's activities are much broader than just nuclear R&D. For example, a University of California scientist working with collaborators from the University of Cambridge and the World Health Organization has come up with a computer modeling method that maps the evolution of the influenza virus. The University of California currently manages the lab.

UT Watch: It is true that Los Alamos does some good work. However, that fact does not change Los Alamos' fundamental mission, which is to develop nuclear weapons. That has been the Lab's official role since 1943 and shows no signs of altering.

According to a July 16 news release from the lab -- it's interesting that it came the same day that Burnam was complaining about the lab's work -- this could help medical researchers worldwide develop a better understanding of mutations in influenza and other viruses that allow diseases to dodge the human immune system.

That's just one of many beneficial, non-nuclear projects underway there.

The lab has received unfavorable attention in the past several years because of security lapses; for now, work in classified areas has been halted. Congress ordered that the management contract be placed out for bid.

The University of California, which has been managing the lab since it was established during World War II, is reportedly interested in retaining the contract. Lockheed Martin Corp. also is mulling the possibility.

UT officials are to be commended, not condemned, for their vision.