UT Watch Response to Yudof's Statement on Los Alamos

Until the July 16th meeting of the Board of Regents, UT officials had not spoken at length about the proposed bid for management of Los Alamos. Nor had the Regents or the Chancellor engaged students on the issue despite extensive coverage in the Daily Texan and well-organized opposition among students and community members. However Chancellor Yudof was forced to respond when the Regents allowed four individuals to speak to the topic at the July 16th meeting. The entirety of his address is reprinted below. Sarcastic commentary in italics by UT Watch’s Forrest Wilder.

We have an agenda item concerning our potential bid to manage and operate the Los Alamos National Laboratory. In terms of process, we have nothing more to report than that we have registered our interest in a bid with the Department of Energy. As the board knows, this expression of interest does not represent a decision to actually submit a bid; it is simply a part of the formal process designed to give the DOE a better idea of potential contractors available to them as they draft their request for proposals.

Nothing more to report? UT Nuke Free members have been asking that you “report” quite a few other things recently. How has the $500,000 you authorized to spend on the Los Alamos Task Force been used? The total $6 million total projected? What was the process for selecting the 11-member Task Force? Why were no students included? What is the decision-making process for the Task Force? How was the decision made to “register our interest in a bid with the DoE”? And, finally, are you at all interested in addressing the negative consequences and implications of managing the laboratory, including environmental clean-up cost, illegality of nuclear weapons development, ethical considerations for developing "bunker buster" weapons and mini-nukes, problems with security enforcement, and issues related to academic freedom or worker safety.

There have been press reports that three other potential bidders registered interest: the University of California, Lockheed Martin Corporation and Battelle Memorial Institute. It is likely, however, that many other potential bidders have expressed interest in participating to a greater or lesser degree.

Apparently Yudof hadn’t read the UT Watch site yet where we had posted the bidders that filed with LANL as of Friday the 16th. We don’t have any secrets here at UT Watch; we got the information by (get this!) checking the Los Alamos website. We suggest that Yudof and Co. do the same. Guys, to do so go here and follow the instructions for signing up to the updates listserv.

Today, we will hear from several people who have, over time, asked to address the board about our potential bid. Their requests came at meetings where Los Alamos was not on the agenda. Since this item appeared on today's agenda, they have been given time to speak. I want to say up front that we at the System respect all views on this important subject and we are glad that the board has given time on the agenda to hear them.

We’re glad you “gave” us the time to speak as well. Twice, UT students have been denied the right to address the Regents. Rep. Lon Burnam was not allowed to speak at the Regents meeting on April 29th. Allowing students and community members to speak directly to the Regents is only a first step. Now, UT needs to sponsor widely-advertised public forums where all sides can address the pros and cons of managing Los Alamos on equal footing. Forget the notoriously boring and underattended “Town Hall Forums” that the administration is fond of putting on. Instead, with an issue as thorny and momentous as Los Alamos, we need a real discussion that draws in all affected parties- staff, faculty, administrators, students, and community members.

Additionally, for my own part, I want to emphasize that we are sensitive to the concerns of those who oppose any association with nuclear weapons because of deeply held religious or moral principles. Even the great Einstein, who originally encouraged the development of what was then called an atomic bomb, lived to regret and disavow his earlier advice. But, as he found out, recalling a new reality is far more difficult than birthing one.

While sounding respectful, Yudof is really being coyly dismissive. “I” – Yudof, as opposed to all of the Regents – am “sensitive to the concerns” – softpedalling our staunch opposition – “of those who oppose ANY association” – implying that we’re all hardcore anti-nuke fanatics – “with nuclear weapons because of deeply held religious or moral principles” – effectively ignoring all our pragmatic arguments, making us into something resembling a church congregation when Los Alamos opposition actually consists of a diversity of people from many different backgrounds, faiths, and political points of view. Yudof must be quite insulated from the avalanche of negative publicity Los Alamos has had for the past 5 years, not to mention the last eight months during which there have been at least 5 major security breaches. Speaking for UT Watch, rather than the coalition UT Nuke Free, we have focused on pragmatic arguments against Los Alamos rather than blithely stating “nukes are bad.” It’s a constant source of amazement that Yudof and the Regents seem inoculated to the security and management nightmare that Los Alamos is. Even conservative University of California Regents Ward Connerly has warned, "Any other institution that is wringing its hands gleefully viewing the prospect of running these labs – beware. [Intractable problems] are the nature of the beast."

I bring this up because until now, our discussions about Los Alamos have been primarily about the process and potential benefits for The University of Texas System. We all understand the nature of the work done at Los Alamos, but we have not discussed it in any depth, nor have we discussed the potential benefit to the nation that would result if we took on a leading role at Los Alamos - or, for that matter, at any national laboratory. There is no question that, historically, a substantial part of the research done at Los Alamos involved the scientific technology used in developing, manufacturing and sustaining nuclear weaponry. With the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s, the United States halted all production of new nuclear warheads and declared a moratorium on nuclear testing to support new weapons development. Under various agreements and protocols, the United States has significantly reduced the Cold War nuclear arsenal. Recent decisions by President Bush will further reduce the arsenal over the coming decade. Los Alamos is not, as some suggest, a "bomb factory."

Wrong, wrong, wrong. In fact, the U.S. is building new nuclear weapons. The Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator (“bunker-buster”) is the first such weapon since 1989. Congress recently authorized a million budget over three years for design and possible production. Much of the research is conducted at Los Alamos. Other new weapons are on the drawing board. One is a version of the RNEP with wings, called BIOS (bomb impact optimization system), which allows the plane dropping the bomb to escape the nuclear explosion. There are also new prototypes for the Mark 5 missile of the Trident submarine. One prototype will require a new “pit” design (pits are the plutonium core of a nuclear bomb). Los Alamos currently has plans for a new large-scale pit facility that will cost billion.

In 2000 Congress approved research and possible development of low-yield “mini-nukes” even though such weapons had been banned in 1994. These weapons rely on traditional atomic bomb designs but are considered “usable” because they have less explosive power than conventional atomic weapons and thus would reduce “collateral damage.” In addition to these blatantly new nuclear weapons, the Stockpile Stewardship and Management program is able to improve and even substantially alter the existing nuclear arsenal under the guise of “maintenance.” This is well-documented and has been on-going since 1994.

The summary result of all this weapons-building activity is the undermining of the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which is the keystone to global policy on nuclear weapons. It is an agreement between the non-nuclear and the nuclear states that the former will only pursue peaceful use of nuclear power while the latter will work, in good faith, deliberately towards the elimination of their own nuclear arsenals. The U.S. is actively undoing the NPT by developing new nuclear weapons and flouting the Treaty's fundamental tenets. In doing so, the U.S. is raising the scepter of a new nuclear arms race, as well as the proliferation of existing nuclear technologies to terrorists.

Yudof makes the comment that “the United States…declared a moratorium on nuclear testing to support new weapons development.” We assume he is referring to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which was signed by the U.S., the five nuclear states, and 44 other nations with nuclear weapons capabilities. First, it should be noted that the U.S. failed to ratify the CTBT in 2000 and is unlikely to do so in the future. Furthermore, subcritical underground testing (testing below the threshold – critical mass - of a nuclear explosion) has betrayed both the spirit and the letter of the CTBT anyway. Now, with the advent of virtual nuclear testing performed on supercomputers, enforcement of the treaty through international monitoring may be rendered superfluous.

Yudof states “unequivocally” that Los Alamos is not a bomb factory as UT Watch has asserted in its literature. We feel comfortable in adding a caveat to this statement in light of the fact that ONLY 75% of Los Alamos’s budget goes towards maintaining or expanding the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Let us say that “Los Alamos is not ONLY a bomb factory” – much in the way that cancer is not ONLY a terrible disease, but a good way to lose weight; that Saddam Hussein was not only a gruesome dictator, but a lover of fine cigars; that torturing prisoners at Abu Ghraib was not only a terrible way for American soldiers to act, but also a good work out.

Los Alamos has been charged with the responsibility of maintaining production technology for the United States for a few key nuclear components to provide a hedge should new weapons production be required in the future. If such production were required, the DOE would construct dedicated production facilities at one of its production sites at that time.

More of Yudof’s uninformed musings. See above. Or read The New Nuclear Danger by Helen Caldicott.

Scientific inquiry involving the nuclear threat now revolves around maintaining the integrity and safety of our existing stockpile, devising secure means of destroying nuclear weapons and disposing of nuclear materials, and, an aspect that is frequently overlooked but profoundly important, ensuring that our knowledge of nuclear technology is the most advanced in the world. Without Los Alamos, the United States would lose its world leadership in understanding nuclear technology.

In an era when proliferation presents the greatest nuclear danger, our ability to evaluate the nuclear research of other nations and adversaries is central to the success of our defense and national security efforts.

If we got rid of every American nuclear weapon tomorrow, we would still need to understand the technology to protect ourselves. And we would still need to spend our tax dollars to conduct the kind of research done at Los Alamos.

This is the oldest trick in the bag for Cold Warriors and those threatened by the de-emphasizing of the nuclear industry. Who wouldn’t agree that we will probably be stuck with the nuclear problem forever? The nuclear waste stored at Yucca Mountain, Nevada will be dangerous for almost 250,000 years. To dismantle and properly store just the nuclear weapons possessed by the U.S. and Russia would take an enormous cooperative effort, a lot of time, and a lot of money (although much, much less than the estimated trillion the U.S. has spent on nuclear weapons since WWII). In essence, Yudof’s argument is a chimera.

UT Nuke Free is not calling for the dismantling of the U.S. nuclear stockpile tomorrow. Nor are we saying there isn’t room for scientific understanding of nuclear technology. What we are protesting - a point not once addressed by Yudof - is the shame of a university managing such a dangerous, outmoded, irresponsible, and unethical facility as Los Alamos.

That having been said, we need to remember that defense concerns are only part of the charge given to Los Alamos. The labs in New Mexico are a major research complex that supports more than 50 cross-disciplinary facilities and includes work on projects involving energy, the environment and health.

But it is worthwhile to re-emphasize that, while Los Alamos has drawn our immediate attention, it is the larger framework of national laboratories and their future that draws our primary interest. The system of laboratories is a resource without peer internationally and, here at home, it is a treasured incubator of discovery - a series of facilities dedicated to pure science. As much of our science moves beyond the realm of easy imagination and into a place that makes old science fiction look positively archaic, there are very few research centers that stay on the cutting edge.

Los Alamos does good science despite its role as a nuclear lab, not because of it. Does Yudof really imagine that cutting-edge science can only take place under the auspices of Los Alamos? Couldn’t scientists congregate somewhere else where there aren’t restrictions on publishing, peer review, or DoE dollars dictating the research agenda? I seem to remember hearing that’s what universities were for… once long ago.

In a world where scientists daily prove Arthur C. Clarke's theory that "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic," it's hard for lay people to begin to understand what's going on. For most of us, computers may be magic boxes, but we understand that they are glorified calculators. So, we are duly impressed when confronted with [a] machine that will do in a second what it would take a human being several hundred thousand years to finish.

I understand the Yudof once taught law school. I hope he didn’t lecture his students as if they were the white man’s idea of a superstitious aborigine as he does above. It’s almost pointless to respond to such a puerile treatment of science. Clearly Yudof is trying to equate the “science” done at Los Alamos with the most vaunted work of the Einsteins and Newtons of history.

But that is what is happening in every area of scientific inquiry. Our ability to test knowledge is growing exponentially and so our knowledge is exploding at a rate almost beyond comprehension.

National laboratories exist to comprehend; their purpose is creating and assimilating new knowledge and turning it into something that is meaningful for the rest of us. At base, the purpose of national laboratories is to give the government - and through the government, the people - unbiased information about science. And universities, through their own research and affiliation with national laboratories, play a vital role in developing that information.

So, when we discuss the possibility of managing and operating a national laboratory, we are contemplating not only the benefit to us, but the profound service we would be providing the nation. Fundamentally, we would be helping this country separate the scientific wheat from the pseudo-scientific chaff and increasing the likelihood that federal resources would be spent on technology that improves our lives and makes our world safer.

If Yudof's statement was an essay on the writing portion of the SAT, he would probably get a top score. But in terms of shameless dissimulating, outright dodging of facts (dare I say lying?), and pretense, it ranks about even with the usual UT System propaganda. Yudof has done nothing to address our points on UT managing Los Alamos and even less to mitigate our concerns that the bidding process has been secretive and politically-driven. Where is the discussion of the ongoing security crisis and UC’s inability to manage it? I would like to hear how the UT System – a pale comparison to the UC System – plans to do better. Where is the broaching of the issue of environmental problems at Los Alamos? How will UT handle lawsuits filed against Los Alamos for environmental degradation? The outright stealing of Native American land to build the Lab? Why won’t Yudof respond to UT professors’ statements that Los Alamos would not bring any added benefits to the University? The list goes on…