As a graduate student, I received a letter in my mailbox this past week encouraging me to support the movement against University of California involvement in the nuclear labs at Los Alamos National Laboratory and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Unfortunately, many people have a knee-jerk reaction to the word “nuclear” and jump on the bandwagon without fully understanding the issue. The result is terribly misleading propaganda. I have worked at and lived in Los Alamos, N.M., and I have heard one too many un-researched and naive opinions on this matter, so I would like to present a more complete perspective.
First of all, it is crucial to realize how important the job of the labs is, regardless of your position on nukes. The U.S. has a stockpile of roughly 10,000 nuclear weapons. Whether you like that fact or not, it’s something we have to deal with responsibly. If we don’t, then how do we know they won’t start to leak radiation in 50 years? What would happen if one day we pass legislation to disarm completely and don’t have trained scientists? How do we dismantle and dispose of 10,000 nuclear weapons with radioactive material without posing a major health risk? We can’t just throw them in the garbage. We absolutely must have trained nuclear experts.
If the UC severs ties to the labs, then our nuclear stockpile will likely fall into the hands of a corporation. Corporations seek profits and have their own agenda. Their stockholders come first and the good of the public comes second. We’ve seen this firsthand with the auto industry, the tobacco industry and the war in Iraq. Just imagine Haliburton managing and funding our nuclear labs. Does anybody else think this is a bad idea? Twenty years ago, we had nearly 25,000 nukes and that number has been steadily decreasing ever since. Moreover, it is illegal to test nuclear devices. Guess who managed LANL and LLNL during this time? Yep, the UC. If a corporation like Haliburton were to run LANL, I bet they’d be a little more hesitant to dispose of so many nuclear weapons in the future.
Finally, a big advantage of having an academic institution involved in the lab, one that’s been stressed by UC President Robert C. Dynes, is that it’s a haven for many of the world’s top scientists for conducting purely scientific research. There are hundreds of research projects at the labs that likely wouldn’t be funded by a greedy corporation. It’s tempting now to rebuke this by pointing out that the atomic bomb creators were just doing their scientific research. Nice try, but unfortunately, that’s not the type of research that would have been neglected at the hands of a corporation. For example, LANL has one of the foremost HIV research programs in the world. It could one day save millions of lives, but would never be profitable for a corporation to fund. However, such a program fits well into the mission statement of an academic institution like the UC. This is just one example of many.
To summarize, none of us like nukes. But let’s face the facts. The U.S. has enough nukes to destroy the world. Hopefully, one day the world will agree to collectively disarm. However, in the meantime, we must safely maintain our stockpile. Once the UC severs ties from the labs, it will be awfully hard to get those back, and the results could be disastrous. Those of you who are passionate enough about this to be activists are barking up the wrong tree. Distancing UC from the labs isn’t going to weaken the threat, but rather will only make the situation worse. Don’t make the UC the scapegoat. Don’t make LANL or LLNL the scapegoat either.
Instead, focus your efforts on anti-nuclear legislation in Washington. Support people and organizations in government willing to actively engage the international community in the nonproliferation movement. Unfortunately, in our current world, the role of the labs is vital and we are lucky that an institution like the UC has a hand in it. Let’s not be naive and jeopardize this.