How UT Learned to Love the Bomb

The University of Texas Makes a Bid to run Los Alamos


If atomic bombs are to be added as new weapons to the arsenals of a warring world, or to the arsenals of nations preparing for war, then the time will come when mankind will curse the names of Los Alamos and of Hiroshima.

—J. Robert Oppenheimer upon his resignation as director of Los Alamos National Laboratory, 1945.

The bomb was born in academia. In 1945, great minds recruited largely from American universities—Robert Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi, and Edward Teller to name a few—overcame enormous scientific and technical challenges to bring the first nuclear weapon into the world.

Sixty years later, the Manhattan Project is still very much with us, institutionalized at three “national laboratories”—Los Alamos in northern New Mexico, Sandia in nearby Albuquerque, and Lawrence-Livermore in Livermore, California. Together with the various enrichment, manufacturing, and assembling facilities around the country, these three laboratories make up the nuclear weapons complex in the United States. Two of the three—Los Alamos and Lawrence-Livermore—have been managed by the University of California system (UC) since their inception. Sandia is overseen by Lockheed-Martin, the world’s largest military contractor with $20.7 billion in contracts in 2004.

The heart of this vast system has been and remains Los Alamos. Located in remote northern New Mexico, the lab has been responsible for 80 percent of the nuclear weapons designed in the United States and commands an annual budget of $2.2 billion. The lab’s long-standing ties to UC have fostered the notion among some Los Alamos advocates and employees that the nuclear weapons lab is inseparable from the University of California system.

The times are a-changin’. The University of Texas System (UT) has been using its growing political muscle and willingness to gamble on high-flying ventures to push its way into the nation’s nuclear-industrial complex. Not only has UT partnered with Sandia National Laboratory, it has now joined with Lockheed to try to wrest Los Alamos away from UC in a competitive bidding war sponsored by the Department of Energy. At stake are not only the direction of the national laboratories and nuclear weapons, but also the role of universities in an increasingly militarized and corporatized United States.

UT has never had the prestige of what it calls its peer institutions—the universities of California, Virginia, Michigan, and other Tier 1 research universities. But it’s the University of California system that casts the longest shadow on Texas public higher education. UC has six component schools that consistently rank in the top echelon of the nation’s universities while UT has only its “flagship,” UT-Austin.

To add insult to injury, UC is flush with faculty members and administrators who are internationally recognized and close to the centers of intellectual and political power in the nation. UT System Chancellor Mark Yudof, talking to Texas Monthly editor Evan Smith in 2004, put that into perspective. “For us to, say, catch up to a Berkeley, I think if you’re talking about the very top rung, at least a decade,” said Yudof. “Remember that the University of California at Berkeley has more members of the National Academy of Engineering, National Academy of Science, the premier scientists of the country… than the whole state of Texas.” And to top it all off, UC has what Senator Pete Domenici (R-NM) likes to call the “crown jewel of science,” Los Alamos. Needless to say, UT has a bit of an inferiority complex.

Hookem A-BombUT has been gunning for a piece of the national labs since at least 1996. At that time, then-Chancellor William Cunningham and Vice Chancellor for Special Engineering Programs Dale Klein asked the Department of Energy (DOE) to put Los Alamos up for bidding. They argued that UC’s monopoly on the lab had gone unchallenged for too long and that others, for example, UT, should have a chance to pitch a new way to run the lab. The DOE declined UT’s offer.

In late 2001, the Board of Regents approved more than $800,000 to spend on a potential bid for Sandia. The DOE never opened the lab to competition and Lockheed retains control, but the failed bid succeeded in introducing UT to Sandia and the DOE as an eager and pliant academic collaborator. “We got to know each other very well through the course of a potential competition with one another for the management of Sandia, and that includes officials at the DOE who got to know the UT System very well and that includes the folks at Sandia who were obviously looking at the UT System very closely,” said Michael Warden, a UT spokesman. Attempts to interview other UT officials by phone were directed to Warden.

In the ensuing years, the University of Texas would pull out all the stops to court Sandia: high-level meetings between Chancellor Yudof and Sandia CEO Paul Robinson, a “Metroplex Day” to showcase the UT-Arlington and UT-Dallas research campuses, and the help of political powerbrokers such as U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) who wrote to Yudof that she would call Vance Coffman, then-CEO of Lockheed, if the Metroplex Day stalled. UT-El Paso president Diana Natalicio also smoothed the way in her capacity as a 10-year member of the Sandia Board of Directors.

The hard work paid off. On April 6th of this year, in Sen. Hutchison’s office in Washington, D.C., Yudof and Robinson inked a formal “memorandum of understanding” cementing a relationship between the UT System and Sandia. In this agreement, UT will develop a peer-review process for Sandia science, directly collaborate with the lab in five program areas, send UT professors to educate Sandia employees, and place UT-Austin President Larry Faulkner on the Sandia board. This system-wide memorandum followed several other agreements signed between Sandia and individual UT campuses. As Pace VanDevender, Sandia’s Vice President of Science, Technology, and Partnerships, put it, “It was so easy because [the UT System] knew what they wanted.”

The UT-Sandia partnership forged a bond between UT and its corporate brethren at Lockheed, based on mutual interest in tapping federal research dollars for nuclear weapons, biodefense, and other military projects. It also formed the precursor to the model UT and Lockheed are pitching for Los Alamos and the future of national lab research in the nation. Under the proposal, the corporation and the university split duties. The corporation oversees the management, security, and finances of the lab while the university is responsible for the science and recruitment of researchers to the facility. Paul Robinson boasted at the April 6 signing ceremony in Washington, D.C., that Sandia’s agreement with the UT System “will become the strongest model for academic-industry partnerships and a new positioning of all the national labs to move forward in this century.” The University of Texas now finds itself allied with a corporation that is a major Pentagon supplier in bidding for Los Alamos.

A place that is by its very design insular and steeped in mystery and secrecy, Los Alamos has come under unprecedented critical scrutiny in the past six years for a series of scandals, including security violations, environmental lapses, poor management, and an embarrassing episode in which a Taiwanese-American scientist was falsely accused of espionage. The DOE responded, in part, by appointing Pete Nanos, a no-nonsense Navy man, to beat the lab into compliance. His aggressive treatment of the laboratory employees—he called them “cowboys” and “buttheads”—and his decision to shut the lab down for almost seven months, earned him the ire of lab employees who felt their patriotic service to the country was being impugned from Congress on down. The DOE, meanwhile, appointed a Blue Ribbon Commission to advise the Energy Secretary on whether or not to put Los Alamos on the auction block. Former UT Vice-Chancellor Dale Klein, recently appointed by the Bush administration as Assistant to the Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Programs, was one of the commission members. Klein had been a nuclear cheerleader for UT since 1996. In April 2003, on the advice of the commission, the energy secretary announced that the department would be accepting proposals to manage the lab from any interested parties.

In the ensuing two years, a slightly humorous courting ritual, visible to the public only through coy come-hither statements in the media, took place among a bevy of corporate and academic entities looking to form partnerships. UT first began signaling that it might enter the race in February 2004 when the Board of Regents approved $500,000 to explore a potential bid. UT promptly began flirting with Texas A&M, Lockheed, and probably others, although UT administrators have refused to discuss details of their planning, citing the competitive nature of the bid. The big dance slowed to a halt in August 2004 when Lockheed decided to drop out of the race. UT followed suit a few weeks later. The move proved strategic as the DOE promptly revised its Request for Proposals, upping the annual management fee to a maximum of $79 million and making other changes to sweeten the pot. At the end of March, Lockheed announced that it would re-enter the Los Alamos competition; UT did the same shortly thereafter.

On May 12, 2005, the UT regents voted 9-0 to allocate $1.2 million for a Los Alamos bid and announced that their team would consist of Lockheed as the lead partner and two junior corporate partners that thrive off the nation’s radioactive legacy, CH2M Hill (a company that boasts expertise in both manufacturing and cleaning up plutonium) and Fluor Corp (a contractor charged with the environmental remediation of radioactive bomb plants from the Cold War era). Once the deadline for proposals passed on July 19, UT-Lockheed revealed a network of 33 universities that would act as research partners to the lab. Paul Robinson stepped down as president of Sandia Corp to head up the team. The incumbent UC System assembled a team consisting of Bechtel (a giant global engineering firm that manages the Nevada Test Site and has enormous contracts in Iraq); BWXT (a company in charge of Pantex, a nuclear weapons assembly and disassembly plant near Amarillo); and Washington Group International. UC has appointed Michael Anastasio, director of the Lawrence-Livermore National Laboratory and Los Alamos’ rival, as head of its team. The DOE will announce the winner by December 1.

Every big idea needs its envoys, its architects. In the case of the increasing merger of corporate, academic, and governmental research interests at the national laboratories, two men have risen to the task: Mark Yudof and Paul Robinson. Yudof is a peculiar Texas politician—a social liberal (at least by Texas standards), and an academic with impressive political savvy. Since his appointment as chancellor in 2002, he’s been quietly “triangulating” for the UT System—trying to keep UT moored to the traditional notion of a public institution while talking shop and taking action the conservative, corporate way. In that vein, he has authored some remarkable polemics on how to make universities more responsive to market forces, borrowing wholesale the neo-liberal ideology and management argot of the corporate world.

C. Paul Robinson and Mark Yudof

Robinson, on the other hand, has been working within Sandia and Los Alamos for most of his professional life. He was employed by Los Alamos from 1967 to 1985, serving as chief of the nuclear weapons division for six years. He also served as president of Sandia Corporation, a Lockheed company, until April, when he took over the UT-Lockheed bid.

Together, the two men have been articulating a vision of how to organize collaborative research in the country. The intellectual framework for their endeavor is an interpretation of a relatively obscure book by Donald Stokes, Pasteur’s Quadrant. The book argues that the old distinctions between understanding-based basic science and use-based applied science are no longer relevant. Instead, Stokes argues, funded research should seek to balance and blend the two. In notes from a July 7, 2004 meeting between UT and Lockheed/Sandia officials, obtained through an open records request, Robinson cites Pasteur’s Quadrant as providing the basis for the “inevitability of our academic/industrial partnership.” The notes record Robinson as saying: “We should organize ourselves (and subsequently each of the laboratories) around this concept and make it the driving theme of our proposals. It’s the prescription for fixing what’s broken at Los Alamos.” (This document seems to reveal UT and Lockheed/Sandia jointly contemplating a bid for Los Alamos—indeed, laying plans—long before they made the official announcement in June 2005 or their almost-simultaneous withdrawal from the competition a month after the meeting in August 2004.)

On April 6, 2005 at the Sandia-UT signing ceremony in D.C., Yudof echoed Robinson’s proposal, saying, “In discussing the compact between science and government, [Stokes] writes that the ever pragmatic American ‘… public values science not for what it is but what it’s for.’ The work done at Sandia is an important part of realizing that belief … and validating the American people’s faith in the power of science and human creativity.”

The use of Stokes’ argument in order to conflate independent, academic science and more product-oriented research conducted for commercial interest irks some critics.

“Pro commercialism people like to point to Stokes’ book—Pasteur’s Quadrant—as proof that enhancing university-industry alliances is a good thing,” said Jennifer Washburn, author of University Inc., a book on corporatized universities. “Much of the research that is done in the academy is what is known as ‘use-oriented basic research.’ On this point, Stokes is absolutely right. But it is inaccurate to conclude, on this basis, that there is no difference between research done in the academy and research done in industry. Each contributes something distinctive and vital to our national innovation system. As university-industry allianc
s grow—and the university i
self grows more commercially oriented—there is a danger that this distinctive academic culture will disappear.”

But in the case of Los Alamos, it’s not as simple as industry vs. university. Robinson and Yudof seem to propose a model where the research interests of the military, the university, and the corporation are bundled together at the national laboratories. Conspicuously absent in this swelling military-industrial-academic complex is consideration of what makes the academic culture unique and valuable—academic freedom; the ability to engage in wide-ranging, even oblique, inquiry; opportunities to work toward the public good free from the demands of profit and the narrow technical concerns of nuclear technology.

“Traditionally, the university played a vital role in performing open, publishable research,” wrote Washburn, who once debated Yudof on NPR’s On Point. “This research was non-proprietary and continually served to replenish the public domain for knowledge—the wellspring for all future invention and creativity.”

At an April 28 UT Board of Regents meeting called to discuss a possible Los Alamos bid, Phil Wilson, deputy chief of staff for Gov. Perry, made it clear that whatever academic role UT might have in the national laboratories is secondary to a larger business and political agenda. “Peer review and research and technology can lead Texas and New Mexico universities into Tier 1 levels in research and consequently into commercialization of these technologies,” Wilson gustily told the regents. He went on to link President Bush’s push for a revival of the nuclear power industry to Los Alamos. “Los Alamos provides a true opportunity to accelerate and commercialize nuclear opportunities for our country.”

UT officials have couched the Los Alamos bid primarily as a way to enhance research science for UT students and faculty and to serve the “national interest.” But even more than the UT-Sandia collaboration, “science” at Los Alamos is in the eyes of the beholder. Nuclear weapons—their maintenance, design, and perpetuation—are the fundamental concern of the lab. Much of the work is classified and UT scientists will be engaged in research that will largely be unpublished and focused on the technical concerns of nuclear technology.

“We think the science is overly touted [at Los Alamos],” says Jay Coghlan of Nuclear Watch in Santa Fe, New Mexico. “It’s very difficult to ascertain how much funding actually goes towards science. At best it’s 9 percent. Fundamentally, science at Los Alamos is nuclear weapons.”

When the Observer asked Michael Warden, the UT spokesman, about these figures, he characterized the analysis as “amateur” and offered as an example of science that may spring from the weapons functions of the lab advances in computer sciences driven by the need to test nuclear weapons on supercomputers in lieu of actual physical testing.

Slicing through this long-running debate on science at Los Alamos and the other national laboratories are some subtle and not-so-subtle changes in the nation’s nuclear policy. For the past four years, the Bush Administration has asked Congress to fund a number of controversial nuclear weapons-related programs: the “bunker-busting” Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator (RNEP); the Advanced Concepts Initiative, a shadowy project that critics contend is a covert way to research and develop “mini-nukes;” and the Modern Pit Facility to drastically increase the manufacture of plutonium “pits,” the core of a thermonuclear weapon. Bush’s interest in “modernizing” the nuclear stockpile has breathed life into the national laboratories where most of this work would take place, reinvigorating a sense of purpose in institutions that floundered after the end of the Cold War.

Former UT administrator and Department of Defense appointee Dale Klein has been one of the principle links between the Bush Administration’s nuclear desires and the national laboratories. In April 2003, the Oakland Tribune reported that Klein was “seeking ‘sign-off’ inside the Pentagon” for the nuclear “bunker-buster.” According to the article, Klein was also preparing a “secret Pentagon document [that] would lay out meticulous specifications for weapons scientists in California and New Mexico,” a reference to the national laboratories. Klein has also argued for a return to underground nuclear testing, banned since 1993. Paul Robinson, as well, has a long history of politicking for nuclear weapons, including “mini-nukes” and nuclear-tipped “bunker-busters.” In 2003, Energy Secretary Linton Brooks even thanked Robinson and the other two national lab heads for backing a repeal on the 1994 ban on low-yield weapons. “[Robinson] just spent the last 10 years fighting a brutal political battle in Washington defending nuclear weapons and did quite well,” remarked Hugh Gusterson, an MIT anthropologist who has spent years studying the culture of the national labs.

UT has been careful to distance itself from any dodgy political questions regarding new nuclear weapons. When the Observer asked Michael Warden at what point UT would become uncomfortable with possible new nuclear weapons development at Los Alamos he said, “Decisions on what is done in those programs are not decisions made by colleges and universities anywhere … Those aren’t even decisions made by Batelle, Bechtel, or Lockheed. Those are national decisions, that sort of debate will go on in Congress and will go on nationally about the future of nuclear arms in the country.”

It is, of course, true that the labs and their managers take orders from the leadership in Washington, D.C. However, in avoiding a discussion of the appropriate role of the university in a democracy, the soul of the institution remains unexamined. What do we make of higher education when it so easily finds common cause with a profit-driven arms dealer? Do the robust debates over nuclear policy taking place in campus lecture halls matter when the school’s administrators are cutting deals with the federal government to take care of their nuclear playthings? How, exactly, do academic freedom and the marketplace of ideas, the hallmarks of academia, thrive in an environment ruled by the imperatives of national security?

Forrest Wilder, a native of Wimberley, Texas, is the editor of the Observer.

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Published at 12:00 am CST