The situation surrounding the University of California’s potential bid to manage the Los Alamos National Laboratory is complex. The UC never has had to bid to manage Los Alamos. It was asked by the federal government to manage the labs and develop nuclear weapons as a public service. Competing to continue the research and development of weapons of mass destruction – a relationship that always has been in contradiction with the core mission of a university that promotes the principles of academic openness – is ethically questionable. Competing against defense contractors like Lockheed Martin and Bechtel Corp. is even more questionable.
It is true that the ethical dimensions of this managerial role have changed greatly since the original Manhattan Project, when we justified our pursuit of the original weapons of mass destruction as necessary to counter Hitler’s program of atomic weapons development.
Similarly, the ethical dimensions have changed since the end of the Cold War, during which our justification was the vital necessity to balance the threat posed by the Soviet Union.
Now, we use the “War on Terror” to justify the development, planned production and threatened use of new nuclear weapons. But the role of nuclear weapons has changed as well.
The current administration has implemented a major strategic shift in U.S. foreign/defense policy, discarding the “threat-based approach” of the Cold War and assuming an “abilities-based approach” as outlined in the 2001 Nuclear Posture Review. This means that rather than producing nuclear weapons for defensive purposes – deterrence – we are now researching and designing a new generation of offensively designed nuclear weapons. Meet the euphemistically termed “bunker buster” and “mini-nuke” that UC employees are creating.
“Mini-nukes” are still designed to be immensely powerful. Even worse, the planned bunker busters would most likely create huge clouds of radioactive dirt after detonation. Studies have shown that weapons detonated close to the ground or in shallow pits actually create more fallout than weapons detonated as an airburst. Supposedly, these weapons would be used against enemy command posts and weapons stockpiles.
As nuclear strategies and policies change, so should our highly prestigious and respected university. Furthermore, students should have substantial say in these changes.
Whose university is this? Am I wrong in believing that universities exist for students? Shouldn’t students be welcomed (not to mention correctly informed) to enter this critical debate? Isn’t it our right as an inseparable part of the UC to be consulted on major decisions such as this, one that will affect the course of the university and the world for decades to come? I say yes. Is Los Alamos the real UCLA? I say no.
But this debate is bigger than who should manage the nuclear weapons complex. Catastrophic terrorism – terrorism plus WMD – is now regarded as the most significant threat to global security. The German foreign minister went so far as to call catastrophic terror a new “totalitarian threat” because it is not deterrable. So how do we meet this challenge? Preemptive strikes and nation-building are both very limited and inefficient strategies.
In the face of this new “totalitarian” threat, many new questions must be posed and debated – by everyone. What effect on the psyche and policy of other nations is produced through the continued research, development and threat to use weapons of mass destruction by the nation who spends more on the military then the next nine nations combined? Can the United States have weapons of mass destruction without everyone else having them? If everyone has them, how can we stop terrorists from acquiring these weapons? Is it possible to stop terrorists from acquiring biological and nuclear weapons?
If we truly and objectively ask and answer these questions to the best of our ability as rational human beings, I think the debate about the U.S. nuclear weapons complex would quickly shift from who should manage the nuclear weapons complex to whether there should be a nuclear weapons complex to manage.
The UC, despite its deep contradictions, is the greatest university system in the world. Why else would we have been trusted to manage Armageddon for 60 years? Since the nuclear age began with us, we are the most qualified institution to lead a much needed international debate about the future of WMD, the future of catastrophic terror and, ultimately, the future of Earth. It is not only our privilege, it is our responsibility.
*Micheal Cox is the student organizer for the Foundation’s UC Nuclear Free Chapter at UCLA. This article was orginially published in the Daily Bruin Online athttp://www.dailybruin.ucla.edu/news/articles.asp?ID=26587