The U.S. nuclear weapons complex is hurriedly finalizing the design and preparations to build a new hydrogen bomb, called the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW). According to a recent National Nuclear Security Administration report, "the RRW strategy would enable a major transformation in the nuclear weapons stockpile and complex infrastructure. Although the stockpile would be smaller in 2030, deterrence would be enhanced because the transformed complex would be fully capable, sufficiently flexible to address technical matters relating to the stockpile in a timely manner, and able to respond to adverse geopolitical change" (www.nnsa.doe.gov/docs). In other words, RRW, if supported by the president and funded by Congress, will expend billions of dollars over the next few decades and guarantee the long-term existence of nuclear weapons.
Such a program will also constitute a U.S. violation of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, a regime that has mostly worked up to the present day. A number of students within the University of California, the government's No. 1 nuclear warhead contractor, have seized on the same criticism, and on May 9, initiated a hunger strike demanding UC severance from the Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore national laboratories. Their argument: The University of California must withdraw from the labs so it can be a major force in defeating an unnecessary and dangerous new weapons program and thus in creating the conditions for disarmament politics.
RRW, plutonium pit production and the various other practical steps being taken toward a new U.S. nuclear weapons program are already in motion, even though Congress has yet to fully commit itself to the mission (in fact, funding was just reduced from $119 million to $74 million for RRW by the House Armed Services Committee). Nor have the armed forces committed themselves to the idea of rebuilding the U.S. arsenal. So where is the push for RRW and pit production coming from? Lobbyists for this new program include managers at the weapons labs and other facilities contractors, alongside a powerful (but small) alliance of politicians and policymakers in Congress and the executive branch.
The University of California's role in this is primarily about legitimation. At one time, UC's administrative influence at the labs was high. Although UC, as an institution, had little say over the programs and policies that the labs would promote, certain members of the Board of Regents, UC President's Office and members of the faculty have held considerable sway over U.S. nuclear weapons policy. This did not mean, however, that the university operated these labs in "the public trust," (a phrase the regents often invoke to imply transparency and disinterestedness), but rather that only several regents and a few UC administrators have ever had a say with the labs. The vast majority of the university community -- its faculty, students, staff and administrators have never had any ability or opportunity to oversee the labs.
The advent of contract competition in 2003 for Los Alamos signaled a new era for the nature of UC lab management. As a result, both LANL and LLNL have effectively been privatized. They are now operated by for-profit limited liability corporations, with 96 percent of the National Nuclear Security Administration's appropriations going to payments to contractors (www.lasg.org/NNSAPrivatization.pdf).
By grafting the University of California's name onto the weapons labs, the UC Board of Regents effectively gives respectability to a mission that is increasingly rejected by the American people and the international community. It gives an aura of enlightened decision-making to a task that has already become profit-driven.
The students have begun catalyzing faculty and administrative dissent against the labs and their missions to challenge UC role's as the grand legitimator of nuclear weapons.
Darwin BondGraham is a graduate student in Sociology at UC Santa Barbara and a member of the UC Student DOE Lab Oversight Committee (http://doeloc.org).
© 2007 The San Francisco Chronicle