Started as the super-secret "Project Y" in 1943, the
Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico has long been the keystone
institution of the American nuclear-weapons producing complex. It was the birthplace
of Fat Man and Little Boy, the two nuclear bombs the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima
and Nagasaki in August 1945. Last year, the University of California, which
has managed the lab for the Department of Energy since its inception, decided
to put Los Alamos on the auction block. In December 2005, construction giant
Bechtel won a $553 million yearly management contract to run the sprawling complex,
which employs more than 13,000 people and has an estimated $2.2 billion annual
"Privatization" has been in the news ever since George W.
Bush became president. His administration has radically reduced the size of
government, turning over to private companies critical governmental functions
involving prisons, schools, water, welfare, Medicare, and utilities as well
as war-fighting, and is always pushing for more of the same. Outside of Washington,
the pitfalls of privatization are on permanent display in Iraq, where companies
have reaped billions in contracts. Performing jobs once carried out
by members of the military -- from base building and mail delivery to food service
-- they have bilked
the government while undermining the safety of American forces by
providing substandard services and products. Halliburton has been joined by
a cottage industry of military-support companies responsible for everything
from transportation to interrogation. On the war front, private companies are
ubiquitous, increasingly indispensable, and largely unregulated -- a lethal
Now, the long arm of privatization is reaching deep into an almost
unimaginable place at the heart of the national security apparatus --- the laboratory
where scientists learned to harness the power of the atom more than 60 years
ago and created weapons of apocalyptic proportions.
Profane Problem or Prolific Profit?
Nuclear weapons are many things to many people -- the sword of Damocles or
the guarantor of American global supremacy, the royal path to the apocalypse
or atoms for peace. But in each notion, they are treated as idols -- jealously-guarded,
shrouded in code, surrounded by sacred secrecy. That is changing.
Private companies have long played a role in the nuclear complex, but it's
been a peripheral one. For example, Kaiser-Hill, a remediation company, is cleaning
up radioactive waste at Rocky Flats, the Denver, Colorado complex that manufactured
nuclear weapons. At Idaho Falls, another company, CH2M, is mopping up the mess
left behind after the construction of 52 nuclear reactors. BWX and Honeywell
formed a new company along with Bechtel to manage and operate the Pantex Plant
in Texas which assembled nuclear weapons throughout the Cold War. At least ten
different subcontractors are involved in managing the Hanford nuclear complex.
But the famed nuclear laboratories, Los Alamos, Lawrence Livermore, and Sandia
-- where the high priests of nuclear physics are free to explore the outer realms
of their craft -- have long been above prosaic bottom-line or board-room considerations.
Until this year, that is.
At Los Alamos, the University of California has already been replaced by a
"limited liability corporation," says Tyler Przybylek of the Department
of Energy's Evaluation Board; and, more generally, the writing is on the containment
wall. Nuclear laboratories are no longer to be intellectual institutions devoted
to science but part of a corporate-business model where research, design, and
ultimately the weapons themselves will become products to be marketed. The new
dress code will be suits and ties, not lab coats and safety glasses. Under Bechtel,
new management will lead to a "tightly structured organization" that
will "drive efficiency," predicts John Browne, who directed the lab
at Los Alamos from 1997-2003. "If there is a product the government wants,"
he concludes, "they will necessarily be focused on that. A lot more money
will be at stake."
Los Alamos was the first to go. Now, the management contract for
the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory,
is on the auction block as well.
Many say strong corporate oversight will correct a legacy of embarrassing missteps
at Los Alamos. The keystone of the nuclear complex, it has been dogged by missing
classified computer disks, cost overruns on its expensive new projects, and
an outspoken cadre of scientists who found their voice on LANL:
The Real Story, a blog where once deferential employees blew off steam and
exposed lapses in lab management.
The idea is that, under private management, this legacy of money wasted and
dreams deferred can do an abrupt u-turn. But the question is: Can Bechtel (or
any other private military contractor) usher in a new era of nuclear responsibility?
Pete Domenici, Republican Senator and Chairman of the powerful Energy and Water
Committee, thinks so. In January, he claimed that "this great lab will
thrive under the management team led by Bechtel."
But a look at Bechtel's record might not inspire others to Domenici's confidence.
The California-based construction giant has a long history of big projects,
big promises, bigger budgets and even bigger failures.
In Boston, Bechtel was put in charge of the
"Big Dig," the reconstruction of Interstate 93 beneath the city.
In 1985, the price tag for the project was estimated at about $2.5 billion.
Now, it is a whopping $14.6 billion (or $1.8 billion a mile), making it the
most expensive stretch of highway in the world. Near San Diego, citizens are
still paying the bills for cost
over-runs at a nuclear power plant where Bechtel installed one of the reactors
In 2003, Bechtel took this winning track record to Baghdad, where it blew billions
in a string of unfinished projects and unfathomable errors. The company reaped
tens of millions of dollars in contracts to repair Iraq's schools, for example,
but an independent report
found that many of the schools Bechtel claimed to have completely refitted,
"haven't been touched," and a number of schools remained "in
shambles." One "repaired" school was found by inspectors be overflowing
with "unflushed sewage."
Bechtel also has a $1.03 billion contract to oversee important aspects of Iraq's
infrastructure reconstruction, including water and sewage. Despite many promises,
startling numbers of Iraqi families continue to lack access to clean water,
according to information gathered by independent journalist Dahr
Jamail. The company made providing potable water to southern Iraq one of
its top priorities, promising delivery within the first 60 days of the program.
One year later, rising epidemics of water-borne illnesses like cholera, kidney
stones and diarrhea pointed to the failure of Bechtel's mission.
Outside of its ill-fated reconstruction contracts in Iraq, Bechtel is not known
as a large military contractor, but the company has been quietly moving into
the nuclear arena. It helped build a missile-defense site in the South Pacific,
runs the Nevada Test Site where the United States once performed hundreds of
above-and underground nuclear tests. Bechtel is also the "environmental
manager" at the Oak Ridge National Lab, which stores highly-enriched uranium,
and is carrying out design work at the
Yucca Mountain repository where the plan to store 77,000 tons of nuclear
waste has environmentalists and community activists up in arms.
At Washington State's Hanford Waste Treatment Plant, Bechtel is working on
technology to turn nuclear waste into glass. But the estimated costs of building
the facility to do that have doubled in one year to about $10 billion while
the completion date slipped from 2011 to 2017. Members of Congress have proposed
that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission take over management of the project from
Bechtel because of its cost overruns and delays.
Proliferation's New Meaning
Given this track record, it's hard to make the case that Bechtel assumes
the helm at Los Alamos out of an altruistic, even patriotic, desire to impose
clean, lean corporate management on a complacent institution long overfed at
the public trough. The question remains: Why this urge to privatize the apocalypse?
To answer that question, you have to begin with the post-Cold War quest of
the nuclear laboratories for a new identity and raison d'être. The dismantling
of the Berlin Wall, the loss of the other superpower as a nuclear twin and target,
and an international shift in favor of nuclear disarmament sent Los Alamos and
the whole U.S. nuclear complex into existential crisis: Who are we? What is
our role? What do we do now that nuclear weapons have no obvious role in a world
of, at best, medium-sized military enemies? Throughout the Clinton years, these
questions multiplied while the nuclear arsenal remained relatively stable. More
recently, with a lot of fancy footwork, a few friends in Congress, and the ear
of a White House eager to be known for something other than the Long War on
global terrorism, the labs finally came up with a winning solution that has
Bechtel and other military contractors seeing dollar signs.
They found their salvation in a few lines of the Nuclear
Posture Review, released in January 2002, where the Bush administration
asserted: "The need is clear for a revitalized nuclear weapons complex
that will be able, if directed, to design, develop, manufacture, and certify
new warheads in response to new national requirements; and maintain readiness
to resume underground testing if required."
There's gold in that there sentence. During the Cold War,
spending on nuclear weapons averaged $4.2 billion a year (in current dollars).
Almost two decades after the "nuclear animosity" between the two great
superpowers ended, the United States is spending one-and-a-half times the Cold
War average on nuclear weapons. In 2001, the weapons-activities budget of the
Department of Energy, which oversees the nuclear weapons complex through its
"semi-autonomous" National Nuclear
Security Administration (NNSA), totaled $5.19 billion; and a "revitalized
nuclear weapons complex," ready to "design, develop, manufacture,
and certify new warheads," means a more than billion-dollar jump in spending
to $6.4 billion by fiscal year 2006.
And that's just the beginning. The NNSA's five-year "National Security
Plan" calls for annual increases to reach $7.76 billion by 2009. David
Hobson, Republican congressional representative from Ohio, calls this kind of
budgeting "the ultimate white-collar welfare," saying that the weapons
complex can be "viewed as a jobs program for PhDs."
He's right. That's a lot of money for a few labs and a few thousand scientists.
And private military contractors large and small are all over it.
Entering Acronym Land
To justify this huge jump in spending, the nuclear laboratories have cooked
up plans for an alphabet soup of projects as part of the SSMP, scientists are
pushing -- to mention just a few of the acronyms on the table right now -- ASCC,
MESA, the RRWP, the ICFHY campaign and the RNEP.
In the interest of not putting everyone to sleep, we can take a closer look
at just a few of the Bush administration's proliferating nuclear projects. Under
the umbrella of Stockpile Stewardship Management (SSMP), scientists are working
to safeguard the stockpile of nuclear weapons and materials so it is not ravaged
by time and neglect. The Reliable Replacement Warhead Program (RRWP) will exchange
existing warheads for more "reliable" (read: more powerful) ones.
There are plans underway to develop the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator (RNEP)
and other "useable" new nuclear weapons supposedly to meet new threats
by new enemies -- "rogue states" like Iran -- in future preemptive
anti-proliferation wars. Under each of these programs are many other acronym-heavy,
cash-rich programs that seem to lead nowhere -- except toward further nuclear
The Inertial Confinement Fusion and High Yield Campaign is just one of the
more outlandish and expensive of these projects. It proposes using lasers to
replicate what happens inside an actual nuclear explosion in weapons labs. Sounds
simple enough, right? The Nuclear Ignition Facility -- where the lasers will
do their work -- is the single largest project in the NNSA budget and, according
to analyst Christopher
Paine, "quite possibly the most expensive experimental facility ever
built." The Department of Energy projects $3.5 billion in costs for this
alone, but the independent environmental group, the
National Resources Defense Council, puts the figure higher yet -- at $5.32
billion -- and that money will be spent before anyone can even demonstrate that
the system works.
The Age of Nuclear Terror?
Do nuclear weapons have a role in the "Age of Terror" -- other than
as potential weapons for terrorist groups? In a new and ever-shifting environment
of emerging regional powers and wars that transcend national boundaries, the
Bush administration is taking a have-it-both-ways approach: It is pushing aggressive
non-proliferation policies for chosen enemy nations and embracing a policy of
accelerated nuclear proliferation for itself. How much harder will it be in
the future to dissuade other powers from building nuclear weapons when the American
nuclear industry and its weapons labs have switched even more fully into private
mode and the profit-motive is increasingly at stake in global nuclear planning?
These and many other questions unfortunately remain unasked. Yet, a
new era of nuclear weapons for profit threatens to turn Armageddon into
a paying operation.
During the height of the Cold War, when competition between the nuclear laboratories
seemed to rival the superpower stand-off, a Lawrence Livermore scientist posted
a sign that read: "Remember, the Soviets are the Competition, Los Alamos
is the Enemy."
In a new era of potential corporate antagonism over apocalyptic weaponry, will
there be a sign at the Bechtel-run nuclear lab emblazoned with: "Remember,
the Terrorists are the Competition, Lockheed Martin is the Enemy"?
Frida Berrigan (email@example.com)
is a Senior Research Associate at the World Policy Institute's Arms
Trade Resource Center. Her primary research areas with the project include
nuclear-weapons policy, war profiteering and corporate crimes, weapons sales
to areas of conflict, and military-training programs. She is the author of a
number of Institute reports, most recently "Weapons
at War 2005: Promoting Freedom or Fueling Conflict."