Debate over the extension and revision of nuclear laboratory management contracts between the University of California and the Dept. of Energy (DOE) has stoked a fire under UCSB professors, who have historically opposed the mixing of defense with public learning.

Today, the University will begin renegotiating its contract with the DOE, regarding the UC’s management of the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory in Northern California and Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico – labs that conduct the majority of America’s nuclear weapons research. The negotiations will run through Dec. 19 and will be reviewed by the UC Regents – who voted to allow negotiations to proceed on Nov. 15 – when they meet Jan. 17-18.

Last Friday, the UCSB Academic Senate debated the propriety and specifics of UC involvement in nuclear weapons research, concluding that they did not have enough time to evaluate the negotiations.

Two previous reports by the senate, in 1989 and 1996, claimed it was fundamentally inappropriate for a public university to be involved with the nation’s atomic arsenal. The reports called on the University to phase out its management of the laboratories. The current senate, however, is more conflicted. Panelists at Friday’s meeting argued that about $4 million in laboratory-funding spills over to UC campuses – money that would disappear without the laboratory management contracts.

Physics Professor Walter Kohn said he hopes the day will come when the University can remove itself from the labs altogether, something he says can only happen if the faculty comes to a collective consensus.

“I believe that if the faculty would take a consistent position over the next 20 to 30 years, the time will come and the faculty will not have to be embarrassed about its own retroactive existence,” he said.

Richard Watts, chair of Academic Senate, said UC schools must figure out how different campus’ faculties are going to review the laboratory-management issue before they can take a side on the contracts.

“Every [UC] campus is trying to work out some … methodology, whereby at least we can have some discussion of the whole management concept,” Watts said.

The Academic Senate will create an independent committee to “adequately monitor events at the DOE weapons laboratories and to regularly report to senate members,” Kohn said.

Some faculty members have reservations about the labs’ abilities to carry out their functions safely.

“The senate shares deep concerns about recent major management failures in the areas of security and budgeting,” Kohn said.

The DOE’s proposed changes to the current lab contracts were distributed during the forum and are documented in an addition to the contract, which is called, “Improvement Initiatives for Security and Facility Operations.”

The DOE has suggested the establishment of a laboratory senior management council and a vice president for laboratory management, who would be the “single point of contact for the laboratories within the Office of the President.” The council, which would be composed of the new vice president, senior vice presidents and laboratory directors, would review lab progress and “establish routine communications” with DOE management.

The DOE’s proposed addition also states that labs will “subcontract for subject matter experts in security, project and construction management” and “institutionalize best practices in operational, safety and security management in nuclear facility operations.”

The Committee on Oversight of the DOE Laboratories received a memo stating that the “University’s objective in negotiations would be to assure that sufficient financial resources are provided to enable the University to continue managing the laboratories as a public service.”

Because of the UC’s rich traditions in science and technology, some professors have questioned whether another organization would be capable of managing the labs, Kohn said. He said the UC name carries with it “an enormous amount of prestige and an aura of no vested interest,” which comforts people into thinking that UC is the only possible contractor for the DOE.

The Academic Senate did not take a position on laboratory management contract negotiations because, panelists said, they do not have enough time.

“Given the time constraints,” Kohn said, “the senate is unable to make adequate independent recommendations.”