For over six decades, the University of California has been the primary nuclear weapons research and design contractor. It has managed the Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories since their inceptions. Scientists at these laboratories – all UC employees – have designed every nuclear warhead in the U.S. arsenal and carried out close to every U.S. nuclear weapons test detonation since the dawn of the Nuclear Age, of which the official tally is 1,054.

The fealty of the UC Board of Regents to the nuclear industry is such that, during the 2005-06 fiscal year, the UC received almost as much money from the Dept. of Energy to conduct nuclear weapons programs – $2.76 billion – as it received from the states of California for education – $2.85 billion.

Last Wednesday, 41 UC students, alumni and faculty members began a hunger strike to demand that the UC retract its management of the Los Alamos and Livermore National Laboratories. Individuals at four campuses – Berkeley, Santa Cruz, San Francisco and Santa Barbara – are part of the hunger strike roster.

This bold act of civil resistance comes at a critical time. In March, the U.S. Nuclear Weapons Council announced that the UC’s Livermore facility would develop a new hydrogen bomb. This is to be the first new U.S. nuclear weapon since the end of the Cold War. Los Alamos is slated to manufacture the plutonium bomb cores, or “pits,” for these weapons.

The larger context for these programs is that the U.S. nuclear weapons complex is preparing its infrastructure and employees for the task of building dozens of new nukes a year by the year 2030. The DOE has outlined that plan in its “Complex 2030” document.

The UC stands to play a central role in these developments. But note that the regents do not really “manage” LANL and LLNL. The Regents only rubber-stamp everything the labs do, providing no actual oversight of their programs and policies – precisely as the DOE requires of them.

From the perspective of the DOE, then, what is the benefit of UC weapons lab management, or the illusion thereof? As the largest public research university system in the world, the UC provides the ultimate fig leaf of academic respectability to nuclear weapons science. By casting the UC’s intellectual and political capital on the side of the nuclear weapons industry, the regents help to legitimize everything these labs do.

By contrast, if the regents withdrew their management of LANL and LLNL, they would provide the weapons labs with the worst publicity possible. The political consequences of their doing so would be vast.

That is particularly so at this critical juncture. The regents have rarely been more politically vulnerable in their capacity as nukes lab managers. The labs’ new hydrogen bomb program, misleadingly referred to as the Reliable Replacement Warhead, has virtually no technical justification and is contrary to the terms of the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The RRW is deeply unpopular even among many long-time nuclear weapons supporters, even by the Navy.

If the RRW dies, the U.S. nuclear weapons complex will be one step closer to the grave. One of the complex’s dirty secrets is that it is currently in a state of crisis. The post-Cold War world is producing fewer young scientists interested in nuclear weapons. Many of the weapons labs’ projects lack a clear purpose. UC weapons lab severance would cause this crisis to deepen appreciably.

The day prior to the hunger strike, the UC officially received a new contract, only with a twist. It will manage the lab as part of a limited-liability corporation with Bechtel Corporation, two other multi-national firms, and Texas A&M University. In 2006, UC-Bechtel’s Los Alamos Security, LLC, likewise took over from the UC alone as manager of Los Alamos. The contradictions of UC weapons lab management, thus, have never been greater.

The focus of the UC hunger strike is, in many ways, the UC Regents meeting on Thursday. We are attempting by every non-violent means possible to pressure the regents to sever their nuclear ties. If the regents fail to withdraw their weapons lab management, many of those participating, including myself, have pledged to sustain the hunger fasts indefinitely.