Los Alamos Chain Reaction

UT's bid to take over Los Alamos Nuclear Laboratory bombs with peace activists

State Rep. Lon Burnam speaks out against nuclear weapons at UT System headquarters.
State Rep. Lon Burnam speaks out against nuclear weapons at UT System headquarters. (Photo By John Anderson)

Call it the Austin Missile Crisis.

On Friday morning, July 16, a group of activists led by Democratic state Rep. Lon Burnam of Fort Worth gathered downtown for a press conference to warn of a mounting nuclear threat. "We should have learned in 59 years that nuclear bombs only mean death, destruction, and resources wasted," said Karen Hadden of Peace Action Texas. "Nuclear bombs are inherently unsafe."

Triggering the current state of alarm were the recent machinations of a powerful cell of middle-aged operatives. No, not al Qaeda or North Korean generals, but a secretive cabal rather closer to home: the UT System Board of Regents.

Last February UT Chancellor Mark Yudof announced that the regents were interested in the possibility of managing the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico – one of the country's elite scientific facilities and an important site for the research, maintenance, and development of the country's nuclear stockpile.

The University of California has managed the 43-square-mile facility since 1943, when it was created as part of the Manhattan Project. In recent years the laboratory has suffered from a slew of embarrassing mishaps. National secrets have disappeared. Workers have been exposed to unhealthy levels of radiation. Whistle-blowers have warned of substandard security.

As a result, last year Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham announced that the U.S. Department of Energy was in the market for a new manager for Los Alamos. UT has joined a list of potential suitors that currently includes 11 other institutions, ranging from behemoth defense contractors such as Lockheed Martin to small businesses such as Dade Moeller & Associates of Richland, Wash. The University of California also remains in contention, but no other universities have expressed an interest.

Whoever wins the bidding to manage Los Alamos won't take over until October 2005. But in the meantime, Austin's activists are lining up like so many Patriot missiles hoping to shoot down the university's ambitions before they get too far off the ground.

On Friday Burnam criticized the university for a lack of transparency in decision-making and raised concerns about federal policy under the Bush administration, which has revived interest in a new generation of low-yield, "tactical" nuclear weapons. Stefan Wray of UT Nuke Free pointed to a recent analysis, which revealed that 79% of Los Alamos' budget went to weapons development compared to only 3% for pure scientific research. The Rev. James Rigby, of St. Andrews Presbyterian Church, warned of the moral and ethical pitfalls of working with nuclear weapons. John Pruett, a UT senior and a member of UT Watch, a student-founded watchdog group, questioned what benefits, if any, the arrangement would offer his fellow students.

To date no comprehensive poll has been conducted analyzing campuswide support for the idea. Few students attended Friday's event. A lone protestor sporting pink hair, pink flip-flops, and a Code Pink T-shirt arrived clutching a sign with a succinct message to the regents. "Drop Tuition," it read. "Not bombs."

On the heels of the pre-emptive press conference, everyone filed upstairs to the ninth floor of Ashbel Smith Hall on West Seventh Street, where the regents were meeting to discuss a number of issues, including the latest update on Los Alamos.

Between sips of Diet Pepsi, Chancellor Yudof announced that the university had met the initial requirements of a July 14 deadline for parties interested in managing Los Alamos. Yudof added that the bid was far from a fait accompli. "This is a way of preserving our options," he noted.

Nevertheless, the possibility of managing Los Alamos appears to have strong support among the regents and state Republican leaders, including U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison. Yudof acknowledged his own reservations about the nuclear weapons production, quoting Albert Einstein. But he also expressed his belief that better management of the facility would yield tremendous benefits for the nation. "Los Alamos is not, as some have suggested, a bomb factory," he said. Later he called the laboratory a "treasured incubator of discovery."

Afterward, dissenters were given an opportunity to voice their criticism. To the regents, Burnam repeated the rhetorical mantra of the day, saying a successful bid would forever link UT with weapons of mass destruction. "Los Alamos builds nuclear bombs," he said. "We can't run away from that fact."

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

nuclear weapons, Lon Burnam, Los Alamos National Laboratory, Karen Hadden, Peace Action Texas, Mark Yudof, Univ. of California, Spencer Abraham, Stefan Wray, James Rigby, John Pruett, UT Watch, Kay Bailey Hutchison

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