Thursday, September 08, 2005

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.

he 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.


Full Story

The article implies that science at Los Alamos has somehow benefited from LANL's relationship with UC. The facts are that UC has been an absentee landlord for the past 50 years, nothing more, nothing less. Whatever science has been produced at Los Alamos came about because of the scientists who choose to work there. UC had nothing to do with that, except perhaps in providing a decent benefits package.

In recent years, it has become clear that UC's stewardship has become a liability with regard to doing science at LANL. I defy anyone to point out a single instance where LANL's relationship, such as it is, with UC has benefitted science at LANL.
UC has been a marvelous absentee landlord. The UCRS may be the best-managed pension fund in history. None among UC, DOE, or the LANL employees have had to contribute in about 25 years yet the multiplier at age 60 is 2.5% of the three-year highest average compensation.

Yes, UC has been basically hands-off. But, just imagine what would have happened had UNM been the contractor? Manny Arrogant would have been calling us up and telling us who to hire. We would be associated with the third-rate university rather than UC.

As a LANL hiring office, I can tell you that association with UC has been a positive item in the recruitment process. Telling prospective employees that their children are eligible for in-state tuition at UC is very valuable.

Yes, it is correct that "Whatever science has been produced at Los Alamos came about because of the scientists who choose to work there." But, I claim that many chose to work at LANL because of UC. Indeed, it was not the only factor, but was a major contributing factor.
An interesting piece, but it shows a lot of ignorance about LANL, a common fault with the the media. For instance, the idea that UC or UT should have a voice in nuclear weapons decision. UC has long excused itself from such ambitions. In fact the DOE owns LANL; period. UC simply staffs it. If UC, or UT, stops being a responsive contractor, serving the DOE mission, DOE should seek a new contractor. That is the current case at LANL, which long ago stopped being responsive to the DOE and began to interfere, via Domenici, with DOE's role and mission. As UC/LANL finds it easier to alter DOE's mission than to execute it, how can we expect reform from continuing with UC? It just isn't in the cards.
LM isn't the devil, and they have little to do with running Sandia. Sandia has a history of working well with the DOE, unlike LANL's preference for opposing and bad-mouthing the DOE. For DOE this would seem to be a no-brainer; seen from their end Sandia works and LANL doesn't. But, there's Domenici to contend with...
LANL is not a university, unlike what this article suggests; it is a nuclear weapons lab which does research in support of its mission. It is not a "Crown Jewel", that is simply hype, introduced by Sid Drell in the "Rudman Report". UC has "great science"; LANL is a weapons Lab, and the UC presence at LANL is damned near invisible. UC has many Nobel prizes, LANL has pretensions. LANL does not use UC policies or hiring practices; does not belong to the Academic Senate; etc... One of the things we can hope for from this competition is to get LANL's role clarified; it is a contractor to the DOE, period. LANL has managed to confuse everyone on that score, by their behavior and their PR. Time for a reality check...
The previous comment is certainly correct: UC has no involvement in nuclear weapons decisions.
UT's ambitions are amusing and prompts me to observe that atomic weapons are not nearly as destructive as envy.
Slim Pickens would be proud.
Yeeeh Haaah
So this is what they mean by "Hook 'em Horns"?
It's been said many times before, but it still amazes me that DOE got such
a sweet deal with UC running the lab. It only cost them $8 mill, and UC
even paid all the necessary funds for the very expensive LANL pension.

Now, all that is about to change. The management fee increases by a factor
of 10x to $80 mill, the GRT will now be paid out to both state and local
governments to the tune of perhaps $100 mill, and the new LANL Corp
pension will likely require large infusions of cash. But, as DOE has made
clear, all these new costs will be coming out of a LANL operating budget
to which DOE has no intention of increasing the funds. It sure looks to
me like some nasty storm clouds are heading toward Los Alamos. Something
will have to give to pay all these new expenses out of our operating
budget. I hope everyone is getting a chance to enjoy the calm before
this financial storm hits us during FY 07. I'm beginning to dread
what appears to be coming our way.
I received grim gratification reading this article. It fills in details it would have been impractical for me to know in advance, but in its outline it confirms what I'd guessed was happening from the symptoms: the behavior of government and the popular news providers in response to events at LANL.

I'm not an academic, and I have never derived a significant measure of pride in being associated with the University of California by my employment at LANL. However it is to me very plausible that others who work at LANL, especially those who are academics, would derive significant pride from that association. Other than whatever effect that pride and prestige might have, it never seemed reasonable to me either to credit or to blame the University of California with how well or how badly LANL performed or was managed. (And I am no apologist for LANL management.) Certainly, the University of California has never given me reason to feel shame by association.

Now, on the other hand, it seems inevitable, unless I quit my job at LANL (which I cannot do practically), that I will be associated with the University of Texas by my employment at LANL, and there is reason for shame in that. The reason, the only one I know of, for that shame is the childish and depraved behavior of the University of Texas (really, of those acting on its behalf) wreaking so much damage on the object of it's desire, LANL, in the process of wresting it into its own possession merely for the sake of prestige - vanity - no matter the consequences. (Didn't you just want to yell "Stop fighting over that - you're ripping it!") (Forgive me for leaving out comments on the obvious motivations of corporate interests involved except to say that my esteem for the University of Texas suffers by its association with those interests and their motivations and tactics.)

I do not expect the management or performance of LANL, or any aspect of work life, to improve as a result of the contract change (though we all know management will cost more). I do expect the loss of whatever benefits the University of California was providing. I do not expect the University of Texas will even come close to filling the roll the University of California is leaving, rather, I expect to suffer because of the obvious depravity of the University of Texas and its promoters demonstrated by their takeover of LANL.

“though we all know management will cost more”

Of course it will cost more. You get what you pay for, as evidenced by what UC has provided the last 63 years. DOE got exactly what they paid for, nothing as far as management. LANL has had absentee management by UC. That explains the competition.

“the obvious depravity of the University of Texas”

So, UT is depraved for wanting to compete for the LANL contract. What does that make UC for wanting to for 6 decades?
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