We’ve all heard about the inspections that took place in Iraq to find weapons of mass destruction and programs to make them. As we know, none were found in Iraq.
That would not be the case if the inspectors were to come to the University of California. They would find that programs to research, design, develop, improve, test, and maintain nuclear weapons have been going on under the auspices of this University for more than 60 years and that they are going on today. They would find 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. They would find that today these weapons laboratories are engaged in attempting to make new and more usable and reliable nuclear weapons.
For a fee, the University of California has provided a fig leaf of respectability to the research and development of the most horrendous weapons known to humankind. It is ironic that our government cannot tolerate the possibility of Iraqi scientists creating such weapons, but at the University of California such a horrid use of science is called “a service to the nation.”
Two of the weapons developed at Los Alamos were used on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. These were relatively small weapons, and they caused the deaths of over 200,000 persons, mostly innocent civilians, by incineration, blast and radiation. There are no guarantees that the nuclear weapons being developed today under UC auspices will not be used again. In fact, the odds are that if we continue as we are, they will be used again, by accident or design.
There are three important reasons the UC should get out of the nuclear weapons business. First, the UC is a great University, and no great University should lend its talents to making weapons capable of destroying cities, civilizations and most life on Earth. The function of a University is to examine the amazing wonders of our world, to collect and categorize knowledge, to expand the knowledge base, and to pass important knowledge from the past on to new generations. How can a great University allow itself to be co-opted into becoming complicit in creating weapons of mass destruction? How can the UC Board of Regents justify this as “a service to the nation”?
Second, there is no moral ground on which nuclear weapons can rest. These are weapons of mass murder. They cannot discriminate between combatants and civilians. They kill indiscriminately – men, women and children. By continuing to develop and improve these weapons, the United States, economically and militarily the strongest country in the world, is signaling to other nations that these weapons would be useful for them as well.
Third, the International Court of Justice has stated that the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons is illegal under international law. It allowed only one possible exception in which the “very survival of a state” was at stake. In such a situation, it said that the law was unclear, but under any circumstance the use of nuclear weapons would not be legal if it violated international humanitarian law by failing to discriminate between civilians and combatants or causing unnecessary suffering. There is virtually no possibility that nuclear weapons could be used in warfare without violating these precepts of international humanitarian law.
Sir Joseph Rotblat, the only Manhattan Project scientist to leave the project on moral grounds and the 1995 Nobel Peace Laureate, asked: “If the use of a given type of weapon is illegal under international law, should not research on such weapons also be illegal, and should not scientists also be culpable? And if there is doubt even about the legal side, should not the ethical aspect become more compelling?”
In 1995, Nobel Laureate Hans Bethe, a senior physicist on the Manhattan Project, issued this plea: “I call on all scientists in all countries to desist from work creating, developing, improving and manufacturing further nuclear weapons – and, for that matter – other weapons of potential mass destruction such as chemical and biological weapons.”
If we are ever to end the nuclear weapons threat to humanity, we must heed the words of words of wise individuals such as professors Rotblat and Bethe. Even if for personal reasons the scientists and engineers at the nuclear weapons laboratories are unwilling to give up their role in creating and improving nuclear weapons, then at least the larger UC community could send a message to the rest of the country and the world that it is no longer willing to participate in the management and oversight of laboratories making weapons of mass murder.
The motto of the University of California is Fiat Lux, meaning “let there be light.” It is unlikely that the light the founders of the University had in mind was the flash “brighter than a thousand suns” from the explosion of a nuclear weapon. I think they meant the light of knowledge, truth and beauty. Unfortunately, the University of California’s relationship to the nuclear weapons laboratories, renewed at Los Alamos in 2005, casts a dark shadow over the higher values that a university is charged with passing on to future generations.
David Krieger is president of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation (www.wagingpeace.org). He is the author of many studies of peace in the Nuclear Age, including Nuclear Weapons and the World Court.