By Zev Vernon-Lapow and Jono Kinkade


It’s five minutes to midnight and when the clock strikes twelve, we all will die; our shadows will be imprinted on the seemingly photo sensitive sidewalk, blast winds will tear through the streets, buildings will crumble and radiation will fill the air.

This isn’t your ordinary timepiece; it’s the Doomsday Clock, a marker of our proximity to international nuclear exchange that has been set by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists since the second World War.

In January 2007, the group sped the clock up closer to midnight than it has been in the past 20 years. This recent change has also, for the first time in its 60 year history, taken into account harmful threats ranging from climate change to developments in nanotechnologies.

And for many people within the UC system, the gears that move the minute hand towards an apocalyptic new day are propelled from a place that’s too close for comfort. The United States’ nuclear weapons are all a product of research and design work done exclusively in labs managed by the University of California.

“With the Doomsday Clock we try to reveal a sense of urgency that we feel with this current situation,” said Kennette Benedict, executive director of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. “In the case of nuclear weapons, the trajectory suggests that we might be in the beginning of a second nuclear age.”

According to Benedict there are at least 27,000 nuclear weapons worldwide. Current trends in international politics and the remaining presence of these nuclear caches have prompted an international insecurity that has been unrivaled for decades. As for the number of nuclear weapons possessed by the United States, estimates range from 6,000 to 10,000 warheads.

And since January, when the clock’s time was changed, the threat of continued nuclear proliferation has increased. The budding threat comes from a combination of geopolitical tensions and the U.S Department of Energy’s (DOE) actions to refurbish the nations’ nuclear stockpiles. Under the Reliable Replacement Warheads (RRW) program, the DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) aims to develop a system “that is smaller, more efficient, more secure and better able to respond to technical problems in the stockpile and emerging national security needs,” according to their website.

The RRW’s will be designed at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories (LLNL), which have been managed by the UC in the past. The contract to manage the Livermore labs has been placed up for bid, which the UC is favored to receive, but this time it has formed a limited liability corporation (LLC) with four corporations, including the war-profiteer Bechtel.

FACT: All nuclear weapons in the United States were designed at laboratories managed by the University of California.

Nuclear capabilities, discovered in the beginning of the 20th century, were refined in July 1945 when the U.S. military developed the first nuclear bombs. The research and design for these weapons, a part of the Manhattan Project, took place at Site Y, now known as the UC-managed Los Alamos National Labs (LANL). The scientific aspects of development fell under UC Berkeley Physics Professor Robert Oppenheimer, who would later be known as the father of the atomic bomb. His staff was largely comprised of UC employees, including UC professors. In August, 1945 the U.S. military dropped two nuclear bombs on Japan, signaling the end of World War II. Some predict that over 200,000 people died in these bombings.

11:53 Dawn of a Nuclear Age

In 1947, after World War II had ended, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists created the Doomsday Clock, placing the hands at seven minutes to midnight. The clock would be changed whenever seen fit to address the threats and fears that are constantly present in a nuclear age. The United States had already demonstrated the devastation caused by nuclear weapons through the bombings in Japan. Meanwhile, Soviet scientists were eager to crack the code of the bomb and make nuclear weapons of their own.

11:57 Cold War

By 1949 the Soviet Union had successfully tested its own bomb. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists reacted to this new threat by pushing the clock hands four minutes forward. The threat of nuclear conflict grew as the two sides were armed, and the race to build weapons of mass destruction began. Soviet scientists based some of their weapons development plans on information obtained from spies in the United States.

This knowledge was contrived in the University of California labs.

11:53 Post 9/11, Iraq War

Despite the change wrought by the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the nuclear threat was perceived as equivalent to 1947. After 60 years of the UC directly managing the Los Alamos National Labs, the DOE opened up bidding for the contract because they were displeased with the UC’s management.

“There had been a whole history of classified information going missing and radiation leakages,” said Mark Valen, UC Santa Cruz student and a facilitator of the class “UC and the Bomb.”

In an effort to take over lab management, the University of Texas partnered with Lockheed-Martin Corporation to place a bid. This prompted the UC to join Bechtel, along with Washington Group International and BWX Technologies, to create the Los Alamos National Security, LLC.

Some say that this partnership is part of a bureaucratization that diffuses responsibility regarding nuclear weapons. They work under the Department of Energy, which owns the nation’s nuclear weapons and emerged from the Atomic Energy Commission, which was originally created to oversee the development of the atomic bomb.

On May 25, 2005 UC President Robert Dynes encouraged the Regents to approve the proposal to partner university management of the lab with outside organizations.

“This is a team that is perfectly positioned to preserve the world-class scientific mission of Los Alamos while maximizing the quality and accountability of the laboratory’s business, management, security and operational functions,” Dynes said to the Regents.

This corporation, comprised of the UC and others, won the bid and currently manages the LANL.

Despite the shift in management, there have still been problems with the Los Alamos Laboratories, including the theft of classified information that was unintentionally discovered by the FBI during a drug bust in June of 2006.

11:55 (Now)

Globalized nUClear Threat

Based on the threat of North Korea and Iran’s nuclear aspirations, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved the doomsday clock two minutes forward.

Meanwhile, the DOE selected the LLNL’s design for a new nuclear warhead, which won over the UC-affiliated LANL and the unaffiliated Sandia National Laboratories.

UC President Dynes explained the importance of the UC’s role in nuclear weapons development during a 2005 Regents meeting.

“We will not have national security if we do not have the best science, conducted by the best scientists, supported by the highest quality research organization—which is what we have at the University of California,” he said.

D.C.-based UC spokesperson Chris Harrington told CHP, “The university has been there ensuring that strong science and technology are applied to the lab work on national security.”

In addition to researching and designing nuclear weapons, the UC’s contracts with the DOE fund the Institute for Global Conflict and Cooperation (IGCC). According to Susan Shirk, Director of the IGCC and a UC San Diego Professor of Political Science, the institute was created to “develop methods for avoiding nuclear war.”

“There was kind of a grand bargain, or a strategic decision, that the university made back in 1983 to do this public service of managing nuclear laboratories, but at the same time, support an institution to prevent nuclear war and establish peace,” Shirk said.

Aside from covering minimal management fees and funding nuclear and non-nuclear research such as the IGCC, the UC itself does not actually receive much funding from the lab management contracts.

Controversial Involvement

At the center of the UC’s involvement lies a contentious debate over the efficacy and ethics of the University of California’s involvement in weapons manufacturing.

Some say it is better for a public institution, like a university, to be involved with such a sensitive and risky matter, rather than submitting control of nuclear weapons to secretive management such as corporations or government. In addition some value the university’s commitment to knowledge and hope that university control will create an environment appropriate to weapons development.

In his speech to the Regents, Dynes reflected this opinion, citing his history as a physicist at AT&T Bell Laboratories. Dynes initially declined an invitation to serve on an advisory committee for LANL, later accepting a second invitation.

“I’d rather be on the inside—having a voice, playing a role in the decision-making, and bringing the values of good science to the institution—than on the outside looking in,” Dynes said.

While concerned over the current activity based around these weapons, Kennette Benedict of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, is optimistic about the role the university can play in regulating weapons, citing research done at the University of Chicago.

“There is a role for universities to play, as civilian entities, in hosting, and providing facilities and oversight in the nuclear design labs,” Benedict said. “One of the things that the early atomic scientists fought for was oversight of the development of nuclear production. They felt that if this was in the hands of the government there would be little oversight.”

But some, such as Marylia Kelley, executive director of Tri-Valley Communities Against a Radioactive Environment (CAREs), are not convinced that this is happening with the UC.

Kelley has attended many Regents’ meetings to protest UC involvement with nuclear weapons and said that the UC Regents have not run the lab adequately. In addition to the Regents not knowing the content of the contracts, they punish whistleblowers and are not open to feedback or student input. She also believes that it is ethically inappropriate for the UC to be involved in nuclear weapons development.

“The goals of the university are open inquiry, honesty, integrity and research, and all those things are incompatible with the design and development of new nuclear weapons,” Kelley said. “It is improper for the UC to lend its academic respectability to the very secret and very dirty work of creating new nuclear weapons.”

And others, like UCSC student Janine Carmona of Students Against War (SAW), believe that institutions of higher education should not lend their title to legitimize weapons of mass destruction.

Others point out the security lapses at UC’s LANL and blame the universities tax-exempt status for creating a lax laboratory environment that has been prone to security leaks. They also decry the Regents’ involvement in weapons manufacturing and their proximity to profit from the creation and expansion of the military.

Activism Now

Plans to stop the UC’s involvement in nuclear weapons vary. For Tri-Valley CARES, the way to move forward is to de-militarize the LLNL and have them serve civilian purposes. The organization, partnered with Nuke Watch of New Mexico, New College of California, and Wind-Miller Energy, submitted a proposal to the DOE in the current bidding process that proposed the lab’s transition to climate change and non-polluting energy research, as well as the maintenance of the existing nuclear warheads.

The DOE, however, rejected the bid, claiming the strategic vision of the plan did not meet their requirements. DOE spokeswoman Julianne Smith told CHP that the “particular bid did not meet the criteria.”

Smith would not comment further on the bidding process for the LLNL, which is expected to be finalized in the next couple of months. But many watchdog organizers, like Marylia Kelley and Mark Valen, believe that the UC-affiliated team will receive the contract.

Meanwhile, at UCSC many activists are working to halt UC’s involvement with nuclear weapons. One of the most successful avenues for their activism is through a class called “UC and the Bomb”, which emerged from the Education for Sustainable Living Program, and will be offered through the Politics department next quarter.

Kai Sawyer, one of the class’s organizers, came to UCSC from Japan where he grew up. Being in Japan, his primary education curriculum spent a lot of time dealing with ethical issues regarding nuclear weapons, and the suffering and destruction they cause. Sawyer sees this class as his way of working to limit the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

“The idea is to get people to understand the issue, and then to train them to be effective anti-nuclear weapons activists, and hopefully develop long term projects that we can institutionalize within the UC,” Sawyer said. “Then our university [may begin] taking responsibility to address the issues that are related to the UC system.”

Sawyer hopes to raise awareness about nuclear weapons because he is worried that people have forgotten about their presence, ignoring the monstrous threat they pose.

According to Sawyer, in the 1980s student bodies throughout the UC as well as academic senates drafted resolutions requesting that the Regents withdraw from all weapons manufacturing contracts. The contracts remain.

“There is a big disconnection between what they do and what students want,” Sawyer said. “The UC Regents are big corporate CEOs, not academics.”

11:55 And Ticking …

Many argue that the United States is acting inappropriately by advancing plans to construct new and improved nuclear weapons in the first place. They see the move as hypocritical in the face of an international crackdown on weapons led by the United States, particularly in Pakistan, North Korea and Iran.

There is also concern that the production of new weapons will beckon their use.

UCSC student Janine Carmona, is worried about the implications of the recent contract.

“Our government wouldn’t be making them if they didn’t have a plan of using them, at least as a coercive measure,” Carmona said.

Opponents of the proliferation of nuclear weapons decry the current actions being taken by the Bush administration. They believe that the DOE’s contracts with LLNL violates the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NNPT), which limited nuclear weapons programs since 1968. The treaty forbade member states from creating new nuclear weapons and also required efforts to reduce nuclear stockpiles.

“If we go about developing new warheads, these are really new weapons, and that seems to be completely contrary to the ideas in the NNPT,” said Benedict, of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists.

The DOE, however, claims that because the Reliable Replacement Warhead program is only upgrading the existing weapons, that the government is still compliant with the NNPT. DOE Spokeswoman Smith says that the success of the RRW program will allow the United States to have even fewer weapons.

“If and when [the program] does come under fruition, we’d be able to reduce the stock pile even further,” Smith said.

However, Valen calls the additions to the new warheads “bells and whistles” that are not needed for national security. And according to Kelley, the current weapons cache may be good for at least 40 additional years.

There is also concern that the uses of nuclear weapons are changing from being a symmetrical deterrent, possessed by both sides.

“Now we are saying we will use them, and we may even use them against countries that don’t even have nuclear weapons,” Benedict said.

Yet for IGCC Director Shirk, who served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the Clinton administration, the use of nuclear weapons is not yet an immediate concern.

“It is a mixed picture, but the use of nuclear weapons is highly unlikely,” Shirk said. “All political leaders of countries that have nuclear weapons, I think, will be very, very cautious about breaking the nuclear taboo and bringing retaliation down on their heads.”

Shirk does believe, however, that the United States has room to improve on many fronts, including working for the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons.

In a recent press conference about the LLNL design contract, Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) expressed concerns over the administration’s direction.

“What worries me is that the minute you begin to put more sophisticated warheads on the existing fleet, you are essentially creating a new nuclear weapon, and it’s just a matter of time before other nations do the same thing,” Senator Feinstein said. “In fact, this could serve to encourage the very proliferation we are trying to prevent.”

In 2002, Congress passed the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), submitted by former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. The document requested preemptive strike capabilities and a contingency plan to attack Russia, China, North Korea, Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Libya. According to the cover-letter attached to the report, “the Nuclear Posture Review shifts planning for America’s strategic forces from the threat-based approach of the Cold War to a capabilities-based approach.”

The NPR has garnered strong international criticism, including recent remarks from Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“The United States, has overstepped its national borders in every way,” Putin said at the Feb. 10 Munich Conference of Security Policy. “This is nourishing an arms race with the desire of countries to get nuclear weapons.”

Back at the UC, while international tensions tighten, the UC/Bechtel/Washington Group International/BWX Technologies Inc./Battele partnership awaits word of who will be receiving the new contract to begin developing the new wave of nuclear weapons at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories.

Regardless of who wins the contract, plans to develop new warheads continue. With a cessation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty by the United States there is no telling what the international standards will become. And as a nuclear weapons producer, the United State’s voice as an opponent of nuclear weapons will likely be silenced as its words sound like mere hypocrisy.

We live in an age where midnight can strike any minute. And here at UCSC, we’re living in the belly of the beast.