It’s been a very merry Christmas for the UC Regents. On Dec. 21, the limited liability corporation they formed with Bechtel, BWX Technologies Inc. (BWXT) and Washington Group International was awarded the contract to manage the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) for a seven-year term. Calling themselves “Los Alamos National Security LLC,” the university-industrial consortium will operate the largest nuclear warhead research, design and production facility on the planet, earning up to $79 million in annual fees in the process.
The Dept. of Energy has posted the new management contract online spelling out UC’s shared responsibilities. These will increasingly involve the manufacturing of plutonium pits (the core of a nuclear warhead) and other thermonuclear weapon components. The contract is a significant departure from what was expected of UC in the past, when it managed Los Alamos alone. UC’s prior contracts required the University to run a weapons research and design lab with few manufacturing tasks. The new university-industrial partnership is a break with this traditional role.
It appears that LANL might soon become the main factory for plutonium pits. There appears to be no alternative; that is, if the U.S. government remains committed to possessing a large nuclear weapons arsenal. Below are some selected clauses from the new contract that can be downloaded from: http://www.doeal.gov/lanlcontractrecompete/NewContract.htm.
Section 220.127.116.11 reads:
“D. Production and Manufacturing
1. Maintain manufacturing capability for plutonium-based pits of various designs for the primary of nuclear weapons. This activity implements specialized manufacturing and testing techniques for this warhead component. The Contractor shall manufacture pits for the stockpile in quantities specified by [National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA)].”
The above clause requires Los Alamos to manufacture plutonium bomb pits, possibly en masse, for the current arsenal of 10,000-or-so nuclear warheads. The vague wording could mean anywhere from a dozen-or-so pits to several hundred.
The second excerpt spells out UC’s obligations to assist other sites in the nuclear-weapons complex in manufacturing non-nuclear weapons components.
Section 18.104.22.168 reads:
“Production Support to the Nuclear Weapons Complex (NWC)
The Contractor shall provide technical production support to the NNSA at nuclear weapon production plants, and modify and enhance the non-nuclear component production hardware qualification program consistent with production assignments and production rates.”
This basically means that Los Alamos will help other facilities produce weapons components like targeting hardware, bomb wiring and circuitry. The Regents’ for-profit partnership is well equipped for this. UC’s new partners already manage the other weapons production sites LANL will “support.” Bechtel manages the Nevada Test Site, Y-12 facility, and Savannah River Site. BWXT operates the Pantex facility, where Bechtel is also a partner. Pantex is the final assembly line for all U.S. nuclear weapons.
The new Los Alamos contract reads like a blueprint for new nuclear weaponry. It will retool Los Alamos as a production site for plutonium pits, and further centralize the nuclear weapons complex under a few large industrial corporations. UC’s partnership couldn’t be more appropriate for this misguided mission.
Nothing is new about the UC’s operation of a nuclear weapons lab, of course. What’s new in this holiday contract is UC’s partnership with three profit-seeking military-industrial corporations, and Los Alamos’ emerging role as a primary production facility. The creation of Los Alamos National Security LLC hitches the University to three industrial firms experienced in weapons manufacturing, the handling of nuclear materials, and radioactive waste disposal, all in order to fulfill the new contract’s requirements.
The UC Regents are ecstatic over their Christmas present. However, it’s unlikely that students, faculty and staff will be equally pleased once they discover the laboratory’s emerging role. Laboratory employees, who have shown much resistance to large-scale manufacturing operations in the past are also unlikely to be thrilled with the new contract. The American people, who have expressed their desire for nuclear disarmament time and again, will clearly view the new laboratory and its mission as a big radioactive lump of coal.
Darwin BondGraham is a graduate student in sociology.