Sandia National Labratories

Teaching the World to Sing in Perfect Harmony

Sandia National Laboratories' Particle Beam Fusion Accelerator II in action. At 30-billionths of a second, the 100-trillion-watt pulse is stronger than the world's total generating power.

In November of 2001, the UT System announced that it would attempt to acquire the operating rights to Sandia National Laboratories – a Department of Energy facility located in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Sandia is currently operated by Lockheed Martin(pdf). UT spent $852,204 from the Available University Fund (AUF) in preparing for the bid. The University expected the DOE to announce in the fall of 2002 that it would open the facility to bids by institutions like UT, since Lockheed Martin had already announced that it would not retain control of the facility if the DOE decided to do so. In the end, the DOE extended Lockheed's contract through 2008 and took no bids at all.

While many projects are undertaken at Sandia, the primary aim of the facility is the development of weaponry. In fact, Sandia develops all of the country’s non-nuclear components to its nuclear weapons. Sandia has come under recent criticism for its role in the design of "mini-nukes," the controversial project to make smaller, more strategic nuclear weapons that could withstand initial impact to release a nuclear explosion underground.

The following is opinion piece arguing against UT's proposal to acquire Sandia. It is written by two UT-Austin Green Party members and was printed in the Albuquerque Tribune.

Nukes shouldn't be allowed to attend class at UT

By Bob Libal and Manish Mithaiwala
University of Texas at Austin Green Party

"The University of Texas System seeks: … To cultivate in students the ethical and moral values that are the basis of a humane social order." - The University of Texas System mission statement.

"We've seen examples … when we attacked underground targets with conventional weapons with very little effect. It just takes far too many aircraft sorties and conventional weapons to give you any confidence that you can take out underground bunkers. By putting a nuclear warhead on one of those weapons instead of high explosives, you would multiply the explosive power by a factor of more than a million." - Paul Robinson, President and Director of Sandia National Laboratories

The University of Texas System (UT) should end its proposal to manage Sandia National Laboratories. The University should take a principled stand against Sandia, a DOE facility charged with designing nuclear weapon components, and preserve its institutional integrity by removing itself from the proposal process to operate Sandia.

Sandia National Laboratories design all of the nation's non-nuclear components used in the U.S.'s nuclear weapons. Paul Robinson, Sandia's out-spoken president and director, has become one of the nation's foremost advocates of the development of strategic nuclear weapons. Under his leadership, Sandia has taken a leading role in the development of the U.S.'s "bunker-busting" nuclear bomb - a weapon that could survive initial ground impact in order to release a nuclear explosion underground.

Robinson has gone so far as to call conventional nukes "self-deterring," meaning that the enormous impact to human life of a nuclear blast prevents U.S. policy-makers from using such a weapon. The implication is that it would be easier for policy-makers to use his new mini-nukes. However, the "mini-nukes" that Robinson proposes aren't all that small. In fact, although the weapons are deemed "low-yield" they still have a yield power of up to five kilotons, a third of the explosive yield of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. It is hard to reconcile the development and use of such weapons with UT's mission to create a "humane social order."

It becomes even harder given the current political climate surrounding nuclear weapons. The Los Angeles Times last month published a report on the Pentagon's Nuclear Posture Review, the leaked document that outlines a secret nuclear contingency plan. The plan expands the list of potential targets in a nuclear strike to seven countries. The report is especially frightening now because it prepares the Pentagon to use nuclear weapons in the case of an Arab-Israeli conflict.

The most dangerous part of the report, however, is that it further narrows the policy distinction between conventional and nuclear weapons paving the way for nuclear weapons, most likely weapons such as the "mini-nukes" produced at Sandia, to be used for more than deterrence.

The testing of such devices would also put hopes of ratifying the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty at risk. Adopting such a nuclear weapons program would force other nations such as China, Pakistan, and Russia, who already have fears over the proposed national missile defense system, into a new arms race. Development of these systems is poorly timed considering the opportunity that now exists for reducing the world's nuclear stock pile, as indicated by recent high level talks with Russia.

The consequences of weapons production then raises serious ethical questions regarding the University of Texas entering into a partnership with an institution such as Sandia. The UT System should be weary of the effect on its ability to fulfill its mission as a university. The Texas constitution of 1876 provided for the establishment of a "university of the first class," a notion poignantly highlighted during the 2001 commencement given by Nobel Laureate and UT physics professor Steven Weinberg.

Weinberg said "there was a sense that the University [in the 1980s] was on the verge of becoming one of the great research universities." He went on to say that this never occurred because the university was never supported by the legislature in the same way that great research centers such as Berkeley, Michigan, and Illinois. The University's acquirement of Sandia would be a quick way of achieving the prestige of a great research university without the Texas legislature making its necessary investment in the school.

However, the price of such prestige must be weighed heavily against the larger ethical issues raised by having a partnership with an institution whose primary interest is in the development of nuclear weaponry. UT must fulfill its mission of cultivating "ethical and moral values" in its students by ending its proposal to operate Sandia National Laboratories.

-Mithaiwala is a Physics doctoral candidate and Libal is a Communication Studies undergraduate at the University of Texas, Austin. Both are members of the UT Green Party and can be reached at UTGreens@yahoo.com.