A University of California regents panel Thursday recommended renewal of five-year contracts under which UC manages two nuclear weapons research laboratories, despite allegations that the university does a poor job of supervising the research and that lab officials are trying to block any comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty with the Soviets.
In an 8-0 vote, with one abstention, the university's regents committee that oversees the laboratories recommended approval of contracts with the federal Department of Energy to run the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and the Los Alamos National Scientific Laboratory through 1992. Approval by the full Board of Regents is expected today.
The university's relationship with the labs began during World War II and has been controversial for several decades. However, Thursday's vote was no surprise and neither were speeches of opposition from some prominent physicists and a brief but rowdy demonstration by a small group of UCLA students.
About 20 students picketed outside the UCLA building where the regents met and later entered the meeting room and disrupted proceedings by shouting slogans such as "No more lies, cut the ties," referring to the school's ties to the lab. One young man jumped up on a table and cut his necktie with a pair of scissors in symbolic protest. Campus security officers quickly ushered the protesters out and no one was arrested.
Earlier, the debate was more scholarly, presented mainly by physics professors. Several regents commented that the debate itself proved that the university should renew the contracts; if the military or a private corporation took over the labs, dissent would not be allowed, they said.
Frederick Reines, a physics professor at UC Irvine who heads a special committee of scientists that advises the regents on lab matters, said his group recently found that the university "is adequately discharging its responsibilities" in supervising the labs. He stressed that the university's role is to set standards of scientific integrity, not to dictate what arms the federal government might want investigated.
His panel also looked into allegations that the labs make weapons that cannot be considered reliable unless tested frequently. There also were charges that lab directors are attempting to protect their turf by lobbying federal officials to reject any treaty that would ban nuclear weapons testing.
Ban on Lobbying
The law prohibits the lab directors from lobbying but does allow them to give technical advice. A House of Representatives committee is trying to determine whether any of the directors violated this law.
Reines' report found that the weapons are reliable enough so that they don't need frequent testing. However, according to the report, laboratory directors believe that they could not assure the government that the weapons would work properly after a long period without testing. The report also stated that the lab directors' advocacy of new weapons systems, including some that need testing, was proper.
Walter Kohn, a physicist at UC Santa Barbara and a prominent critic of the labs, told the regents that Reines' report did not prove the university is doing a good job in watching over the labs; instead, Kohn said, the report only "emphasized how ineffective" the university has been.
Kohn urged the regents to propose that the lab directors take steps in their research that will eliminate the need for nuclear testing.
Jeremiah Hallisey, the San Francisco attorney who heads the regents panel that oversees the lab, responded sharply. "I think you want to change the nuclear policy of the nation. That is the function of the Administration and of Congress," Hallisey told Kohn. "Perhaps you should be the candidate for Congress from Santa Barbara."
Nevertheless, Hallisey and his committee also voted for measures that they said will improve supervision of the labs, including requirements for annual reports and more frequent tours of the facilities. Also approved were items that are supposed to make the labs more accessible to faculty and students in university programs on arms control and peace.
In addition, the regents today are expected to approve a motion that would make it easier for the university to claim patents on some discoveries made at the labs.
Among the regents, Stanley Sheinbaum of Los Angeles was the most vocal in criticizing the labs. He said the university treats the labs like sacred cows and urged the Committee on Oversight of the Department of Energy Laboratories to change its name.
"We are misleading the public by the very presence of that word oversight , when that oversight is really bookkeeping," Sheinbaum said. But he is not a member of the oversight committee and could not vote on the matter Thursday.
The one abstention was from Willis Harman, a regent who is a professor of engineering at Stanford University. Harman said he felt torn between a vote in favor of the contracts, which he said might be construed as one supporting nuclear weapons, and one against the contracts, which might be viewed as one giving control of the labs to the military or a corporation.
Over the next five years, the contracts involve about $2 billion in government money for the research and about $62 million in management fees for the university. Officials said the university does not make a profit on the contracts but manages the labs as a public service.
The contracts cover two weapons laboratories--one at Livermore, 35 miles east of Oakland, and another at Los Alamos, 30 miles north of Sante Fe, N.M.