Students and young activists intend to teach one another about national security issues and nuclear nonproliferation through a national conference at UCSB in August.

“The reason why I’m attending this conference is mainly to educate myself and others about the issue,” said Edwin Figueroa, 18, student of international affairs at NortheasternUniversity in Boston. “I think it’s important for the public to know how our tax dollars are spent . . . from the war in Iraq to education.”

Slated to kick off on Aug. 15, “Think Outside the Bomb” will bring together up to 60 students from around the country in a weeklong conference on nuclear issues.

“We basically want to help young people who are interested in peace and security issues become better leaders,” said Michael Coffey, director of youth programs at the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, the primary sponsor of the conference.

“If you talk with people under 30 these days, particularly in this country, not a lot of us know what’s going on with Aug. 6 and 9, and the 60th anniversaries of Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” Mr. Coffey said. “We are not really following what’s going on with Iran’s nuclear program, North Korea and our own program here in the United States.”

The conference is likely to take up the matter of a new nuclear weapon that the Bush administration is considering, as the United States demands that other nations disarm. The Senate last week approved an energy bill that included $4 million to study the feasibility of the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator, a nuclear bomb that could destroy deeply buried targets.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said, “I have argued before on the Senate floor that such actions — combined with the policy of unilateralism and preemption — run counter to our values and nonproliferation efforts and put U.S. national security interests and American lives at risk.”

The House version of the energy bill does not contain funds to study the “bunker buster.”

“I have to tell you I am not familiar with all of the specifics of the Senate bill, in the fact that it has not come through our committee,” said Rep. Elton Gallegly, R-SimiValley. But he said the government should be “exploring every potential resource from the standpoint of feasibility and everything that we can in order to effectively get to these individuals that are threats to the United States.”

“One of the things that we do know is there are countries that are doing nuclear testing as we speak,” Mr. Gallegly said. “Or at least we have a reason to believe things are happening in North Korea. . . . I think that we need to keep all of our options open.”

Mr. Gallegly compared the criticism of the bunker buster bomb with that of the Strategic Defense Initiative — the Reagan-era “Star Wars” program, which would have positioned weapons in space.

“What better type of military device can you have than one that you’ll never have to use but the mere threat of having it creates world peace?” Mr. Gallegly said.

Darwin BondGraham, 24, a graduate student of sociology at UCSB and an organizer of the national conference, voiced concern about the way the government attempts to counter terrorism.

“Terrorism and these kinds of atrocious crimes, these are political and social problems at their root,” Mr. BondGraham said. “They can only be solved and properly addressed through political and social means.”

Mr. BondGraham also said the Bush administration wants “a weapon that they can use to threaten North Korea and Iran.”

“But an easier way to solve this is for the United States to stop proliferating nuclear weapons,” he said. “Then, we no longer appear hypocrites on the world stage.”

Referring to the fact that the University of California provides management and oversight to the nation’s two principal nuclear weapons laboratories — Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and Los Alamos National Laboratory — Mr. BondGraham said it is his responsibility to respond to the issue as a UC student.

“I feel that all UC students and faculties, to the extent that the UC is a public institution of California — Californians, even — have special responsibilities because it’s our university that manages these laboratories,” Mr. BondGraham said.

He said there needs to be debate among students, faculty members and citizens about the proper role of the university in society.

“Should universities manage nuclear weapons?” he asked. “Should universities manage weapons of mass destruction laboratories? Or should they not? It’s always been my position that they should not.”

Ayai Tomisawa writes from Washington, D.C., for Medill News Service.

Originally published by the Santa Barbara News Press.