America's Nuclear Weapons Labs
The Reality Beneath The Headlines

by Manuel García, Jr.

July 7, 2003



On 30 April 2003, US Department of Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham announced his decision to hold an open bidding for the contract to manage the Los Alamos National Laboratory -- the birthplace of the atomic bomb -- for the term beginning in October 2005. (1) The sixty-year reign of no-bid management by the University of California had come to an end. The great ivory-tower, national defense science enterprise that had mushroomed out of the 1940's Physics Department of J. Robert Oppenheimer and Ernest O. Lawrence at Berkeley now seemed destined to an inglorious absorption into the vast American military-industrial complex.

This decision is political, and prompted by a series of stinging public embarrassments.

The implosion of reputation for the US nuclear weapons labs is centered at Los Alamos, and began in 1999 with the pseudo-espionage by the Chinese of US nuclear weapons "secrets." What unfolded in reality was an embarrassing mixture of clueless US nuclear weapons jingoism (how could the Chinese invent anything we thought we were so clever in achieving?) and the politically motivated racial profiling and scapegoating of Dr. Wen Ho Lee, a Chinese-American physicist involved in computing the hydrodynamics of nuclear devices in X-Division at Los Alamos. The culmination of this affair was an apology to Lee by a federal judge in open court in 2000 (Lee did commit security violations, but no spying and no betrayal). (2)

Dovetailing the Lee affair was the security lapse of classified hard drives, containing data on the assembly and control access of US nuclear weapons, "lost" during the time of a devastating wildfire at Los Alamos. These hard drives later materialized unseen behind a copying machine, within their normal classified area in X-Division, as FBI agents swarmed over the Los Alamos Lab. (3)

The latest series of traumas for Los Alamos, and by extension to the sister DOE Labs run by the University of California, are the scandals involving procurement fraud (for example, barbecues and recreational equipment bought -- for personal use -- on Los Alamos credit card accounts), missing inventory (mainly laptop computers), (4) and fired whistleblowers (the police investigators hired to uncover fraud at Los Alamos were fired for finding and reporting it, but are now rehired after outcry from the public and especially the DOE Secretary -- oops). (5)

The finger of blame for all these travails has been leveled at the University of California, the manager of Los Alamos and Livermore, the weapons labs, as well as of the Lawrence Berkeley Lab, which does unclassified research (there have been recent financial and other troubles reported at LBL, as well). (6)

What is the reality beneath all these headlines?

The history

The US Department of Energy is the government agency charged with managing the nation's nuclear weapons arsenal. It oversees the physics design, engineering development, product testing, and manufacture of these devices. This is a massive and expensive undertaking, which includes an enormous debt in the form of highly toxic and radioactive pollution.

The US DOE owns the nuclear weapons labs, Los Alamos and Livermore, which engage in physics design, and Sandia, which does engineering related to nuclear weapons. The DOE contracts the management of its labs with a variety of operators, both corporate and university (there are numerous other DOE labs, doing non-weapons work). The University of California was the first such contractor of the physics design labs, originally just Los Alamos, founded in 1943, and later Livermore in 1952. The World War II era of nuclear weapons design was when Nobel laureates rubbed shoulders in the New Mexico backcountry to devise a weapon to defeat Hitler, still a very popular story in film and print.

The Livermore Lab was a creation of the Cold War during its deepest chill, the Rosenbergs would be electrocuted and Stalin would end his days within months of its opening, and Senator Joe McCarthy was at his witchhunting zenith. By the 1960's, nuclear weapons design had arrived at tinkering using computers to refine existing designs -- the major problems having been solved.

Running the plantation

The DOE was interested in the product of the Laboratories - bomb designs verified by nuclear tests -- while uninterested in the personnel management required. So the DOE gave a fairly free hand to the contractors, so long as they produced the desired results. The University of California, as the overseer of the absentee DOE landlord's nuclear design plantations, was motivated to have operations run smoothly.

The administrators of the University of California were both uninterested and unqualified to manage the details of the physics work involved in nuclear weapons design, and chose to treat the Labs in a manner similar to an academic department -- "hands off." There was a good deal of wisdom in this choice, unfortunately, there were also dangers. Just as the DOE played the absentee landlord to the UC's oversight of the labs, so the UC played the absentee overseer to the local bosses in these nuclear design labs. The UC allowed the labs to work out their own internal squabbles, elites, and rules, and confined itself to only dealing with the labs' leadership elites. The quid pro quo of this arrangement was clear: smooth operations for UC to report ("don't make us work"), legal and fiscal insulation from "labor" for the lab elites ("bosses' insurance"), their mutual benefit being the largesse of a happy DOE patron.

Back in the U.S.S.R.?

The DOE loved this arrangement, it could interact directly with the providers of weapons product yet only have to connect with a few members of the labs' elite, and only talk about what it was going to get.

In a well-run operation, the front office insulates the workshop from the customer, mediating between them to mutual benefit: products happily bought, work happily done, generating income for the partnership of workshop and front office. In a badly-run operation, the front office insulates the workshop bosses from their own workers, and disappears while the customer and shop bosses cut deals the voiceless workers have to implement. This is a recipe for shenanigans by the bosses, delusion by the customer, and corporate amnesia by the management.

The dysfunctional aspect of the UC-DOE management arrangement was that in providing what the DOE wanted, the UC was reinforcing a dynamic that insulated local mismanagement, and ultimately worked against the DOE's long-term interests. The extent to which the local lab management elites work the system to their personal advantage is painfully described in the accounts of the persecution of whistleblowers. Read the accounts of recent Livermore whistleblowers Lee McVey, Dave Lappa, Dee Kotla, Michelle Doggett, Matthew Zipoli and Charles Quinones, (7), (8). I know or have met McVey, Lappa, Zipoli and Quinones, as well as many others, (like Roy Woodruff, who first hired me at Livermore, and Ching Wang) (9) who've disappeared in terms of Livermore careers (as was intended). The operators Michelle Doggett encountered in her harrowing passage through an ethical sewer were people from whom I had to try and get a job some years ago (since I am a designated internal nomad at Livermore, or "EBA," an "employee beyond acceptance") -- I was relieved they didn't take me on.

The internal political psychology of the Labs is feudal. Each elite is corrupt as a whole because it sees the protection of any of its members, however unsavory, as mandatory for the protection of each of them (I'll describe why this is so, later). This is why whistleblowers are persecuted, and the malevolent minority of Lab elitists are protected in lavish sinecures for life (the majority of Lab managers are merely bureaucrats conditioned to seek approval).

Your tax dollars at work -- for somebody else

Long ago we reached the point where the DOE is underwriting -- without limit -- the legal expenses of the UC on behalf of local lab management when it seeks to persecute employees who are fighting retaliation as a result of bringing fraud, waste, racial discrimination and sexual harassment abuses to light. (10) Now think of that, tax dollars spent without question or limit to protect a management elite's ability to steal, waste, discriminate, harass and retaliate against those who protest such behavior. Please note, the ability of lab management to consistently "not see" these ills done under their supervision, is the moral equivalent of assenting to them -- so whether they "commit" abuses or only "not see them," they effectively commit them. (11) In addition to the stories of the whistleblowers, consider the merits of the gender and ethnic discrimination class-action lawsuits against LLNL. (12), (13), (14).

All these DOE-funded UC efforts to protect lab management elites from their own actions are done in the name of protecting "national security," and ensuring "academic freedom" at the labs. Does anyone recall that the public expense of the nuclear weapons labs is justified to the American public as necessary for the defense of the rights and freedoms we cherish as Americans?, and does anyone recall that most Americans see the protest of fraud, waste, racial discrimination and sexual harassment as a patriotic thing to do? -- oops.

Follow the money

Given all this, why has the University of California put up with managing the nuclear weapons labs for so long, what could they possibly gain? President Atkinson of the University of California has stated that the University was motivated by civic fervor, to do what it is uniquely capable of doing, as a service to the nation. However, there is another more substantial reward, and it is the unmentioned 800 pound gorilla in the middle of all discussions about the DOE contract to manage the nuclear design labs -- the pension fund.

The DOE pays all costs for running the labs and then awards the UC an additional fee for its services. This fee is in the tens of millions, the exact number is not important. (15) The real money is made in that portion of the salaries paid to lab employees, which is funneled into the UC pension fund. Anyone in a mutual fund knows that it is to your benefit to have others also investing in the fund, preferably many others and especially lavish investors. The nuclear weapons labs exist to transform DOE dollars into UC pension fund. By simple reckoning, it is clear that several billion dollars a year enter the UC pension fund from the nuclear weapons Labs -- that is what everybody is after. UC has had the Uncle Sam Sugar-Daddy sweetheart deal for sixty years! Plenty others are jealous, and are ready to roll up their sleeves, and hike their skirts, to get a lick of that candy.

The nuclear weapons labs are the crown jewels of the corporate-military welfare system of the United States. Given its record so far, it would not be unkind to imagine that the current Bush Administration might wish to replace the UC as the beneficiary of this subsidy, with entities more closely associated with the principals of this Administration. It may be that the recent missteps, at Los Alamos in particular, have given the Administration a sufficient pretext to forge ahead with such a change -- "Monopoly," for real.


If the United States wishes to expand and maintain a classic empire, then it needs nuclear weapons. The only credible purpose of American nuclear weapons is to threaten weak nations that do not possess such weapons, and the only reason to do such a thing is to gain control of them with little if any war -- that is imperialism. The motivation for imperialism is always the same, the control of people and resources in foreign lands to the benefit of the ruling elite in the imperial country.

The uses of nuclear weapons

Nuclear weapons have no military purpose for the United States, they are excessively destructive and widely contaminating. Note how the US military has honed its actual warfighting technology to an extreme precision (relatively speaking), relying on fancy electronics, computers, and the Global Positioning System, to guide bombs and missiles to narrowly specified targets. When the intention is to move into the territory being attacked -- to rearrange the politics or extract resources -- then it is beneficial to cause as little collateral damage as possible. Precision targeting means that smaller explosives can the do the job required by the aggressor. If you want to be able to miss by a mile and still knock out the target, then a 20 megaton bomb would do the job -- but much else would also be eliminated and contaminated. Making "low, low yield" nuclear bombs is an expensive and cumbersome way of arriving at the equivalent of "high yield" chemical explosives, now being made in the range of 2 tons of TNT explosive power (and maybe up to 10?).

Nuclear bombs of any power would only be useful to groups who would wish to create severe damage and consternation in the wealthy industrialized societies of the "First World" -- the nuclear terrorist scenario now in vogue in our public discussions of our fears. In fact, this is the most logical application of nuclear weapons as actual explosions, given the richness of targets in the First World, and the tremendous amplification of effectiveness nuclear weapons would provide a small terrorist network (not that I wish to encourage this particular application).

Beside underpinning imperial diplomacy, the only other possible use of nuclear weapons by a nation-state would be to implement a genocidal intent over another territory, which it was never intended to occupy, and from which there was no concern of pollution or contamination leaking out after the war. This is not too likely -- I hope -- but it would be reassuring if nuclear weapons were absent from the Indian subcontinent and the Middle East (to begin with). Nuclear weapons are to nations and power-seeking groups what handguns are to cheap hoodlums -- shortcuts to personal power, cloddish substitutes for prestige gained through the steady exhibition of good character. Like penis enlargement pills, nuclear weapons will never lose their appeal.

The nuclear bomb industry (along with a vast military industry) supplies the hardware backing American imperialist edicts to the rest of the world, while simultaneously playing a domestic role as a very efficient subsidy, converting public wealth into the private wealth of a very narrow sector of American society. This is unquestionably the main role of the corporate military-industrial complex, since at half its present size America's military might would still outweigh the combined military force of the rest of the world. Nuclear weapons are actually used as finance sinks, to help prosecute an economic class war within our own country. American imperialism ("globalization," "free trade") is simply the extension of this war abroad.

Lush life

The unifying thread among the people in the nuclear weapons labs is that we all "know" (despite the denial) that we are all parasites feeding off the US Treasury, and that we don't want our anesthesia -- a soporific concoction of "nuclear secrets," "forefront science" and "national security" -- to wear off, and the public pluck us off from a lush and satisfying feed at its veins. A great deal of thought and energy is spent by many thousands of people, in the labs, the UC, and the DOE, to justify the continuation and, if possible, expansion of make-work programs of "defense science," whose only real purpose is to soak up government money on a yearly cycle. DOE schedules and goals often migrate into agreement with the actual outcomes of the labs' activities, so declarations of victory and "excellence" are routine, and completely meaningless. Even UC President Atkinson, commenting bitterly after DOE Secretary Abraham's announcement on the 30th of April, noted that the DOE had given UC accolades for "outstanding" and "excellent" performance just prior to the outbreak of the Los Alamos procurement fraud scandal.

If the great unifying fear of Lab people is public disenchantment with our continuing subsidy, then the great unifying desire for the UC lab employees is the acquisition of a fat UC pension. All internal squabbles in the UC labs spring from this motivation, everyone is scrambling for as high a pay as possible, because this is then richly rewarded by a fatter pension on retirement. The method of moving up the money ladder at the Labs is to make the patronage system work for you: find an upwardly mobile boss to assist on his way up, and drag along underlings of your own who will owe you political favors.

For employees of more modest ambition, there is the need to "move up the rankings," by appearing to be of greater relative "value" to the organization, through technical prowess or greater service to "programs." Many naïve employees fall for the ruse of "performance evaluation" systems at the labs ("Integrated Pay and Performance Program" is Livermore Lab's latest), and are distracted from effective action against management (like unionizing, always difficult among the self-important), by their absorption in the intricacies of these double-talking shell games.

All of this makes for court intrigues, personal rivalries, double dealings, and rude awakenings, as people maneuver for career advantage. While the class solidarity of the local management elites is absolute -- they brook no intrusion on their class privileges from the employees or the public -- it nevertheless permits for raging feuds, career coups and career assassinations within their class. This type of activity was especially intense during the recent period during which the UC was determining who to select as the Livermore Lab director. Michael Anastasio's candidacy only succeeded after the prior nominee, Ray Juzaitis -- a Los Alamos man, was sabotaged by anonymous Livermore conspirators, who linked him with Wen Ho Lee in publicized innuendoes of mismanagement regarding the tardy recognition of Lee's security violations. It was an operation that would have done Richard Nixon proud. (16) For some employees, the sketchy details they may hear about these insider games are taken to be significant information giving them some sort of edge in positioning themselves to greater advantage. Of course, this is totally silly. It doesn't matter who the management class sends to occupy a particular office or title, nothing fundamental will change.

The patronage system confers increasingly greater advantage to increasingly higher echelons, so naturally there is a friction between the managing elites, who control the system to greatest personal advantage, and the much larger number of "workers," who have no control. Out of this generalized friction diverges the specific grievances of the different sectors of the employee community, be it the complaints of gender or ethnic pay inequities, or of favoritism, cronyism and nepotism swaying promotion decisions, or of whistleblowers protesting retaliation because they interfered with some higher-ranking individual's personal schemes. Employees are bonded to their managers by a mutual desire to milk the subsidy, and at odds with them over the equity of shares.

The thinking behind the fence

Earlier, I had promised an explanation, which follows. The reason the management elites at the labs exhibit such monolithic solidarity, and dogged perseverance in countering all moves by employees against any of their members, is because they cannot afford to disfigure the public image of the labs, thus jeopardizing their subsidy by eliciting a re-think on the part of the public and their congressional representatives, and they cannot afford to allow the establishment of a precedent of personal responsibility, because once one manager is held accountable for wrongdoing and punished, then all of them will forever be vulnerable, and their patronage system will have effectively collapsed.

Among the employees, the only behavior with any degree of similarity to management's solidarity is the consensus to shelter the public mind from any critical consciousness about the subsidy. The public must not think ill of the subsidy ever bringing each employee closer to the cherished pension. This is why employees exclude any "radioactive" individual, who has been labeled as a whistleblower ("snitches," as Michelle Doggett learned), or "security risk," (they wrote Wen Ho Lee off, and were willing to see him hanged, if it meant they could keep on with their routines), or "troublemaker" of any kind. To be such an individual within the labs is to have a visceral understanding of the social situation of lepers in medieval times. This is not really a conspiracy among employees -- that would be too brave -- but, with rare exceptions, a parallel uniformity of individual defensiveness. Everybody just behaves the same way for purely selfish reasons.

My view

My own view is that if the American public is comfortable with the continuation of this subsidy (which I do not see as being in their interests, either for national security or social welfare), well fine, but at least we should run the labs without tolerating, let alone defending with tax dollars, retaliatory practices, discrimination, and a patronage system of personnel management. If this is not possible, then we should not have these labs.

Our country is like so many others in the world, where a narrowly-focused plutocracy uses its political power to exploit the people and resources of its own nation for its own materialistic gain. In addition, as the post-Cold War "superpower," the American plutocracy is able to exploit the armed forces to extend its greedy reach abroad as an economic imperialism backed by military power. I think this harms the body and soul of our American nation. Nuclear weaponry is a technological accessory to this suite of imperialistic policy and conquistador home rule. These are things we should eliminate.

My recommendations to the public, regarding the nuclear weapons labs are:

1 -- Abolish patronage personnel management, most effectively by replacing the management elites (regardless of the contract operator), (17)

2 -- Compensate all current and former whistleblowers and aggrieved employees and ex-employees to their satisfaction (you will be surprised at how little they actually want, and the cost of this will be DOE's parking ticket for inattention),

3 -- Punish perpetrators, for abusing power and acting unethically, to set examples (and continue to do so to maintain a new standard),

4 -- Stop work on nuclear weapons, and devise authentic scientific and engineering projects for intellectual advancement and, most importantly, social welfare,

5 -- If item 4 seems too utopian, then close the labs to save the public expense.

When item 4 is not "too utopian," then our nation will have achieved a profound and transformative greatness.

· · · · · ·

Manuel García, Jr. is a graduate aerospace engineer, working as a physicist at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. He did underground nuclear testing between 1978 and 1992. He is concerned with employee rights and unionization at the nuclear weapons labs, and the larger issue of their social costs.

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1.  USDOE Release No. PR-03-091, "DOE to Compete Los Alamos National Laboratory Management and Operations Contract Upon Completion of Current University of California Contract in 2005," 30 April 2003, http://www.energy.gov/HQPress/releases03/aprpr/pr03091.htm. (as of June 20, 2003)  (back)

2.  A Convenient Spy: Wen Ho Lee and the politics of nuclear espionage, Dan Stober and Ian Hoffman, Simon & Schuster, 2002.  (back)

3.  "FBI ends investigation in missing Los Alamos hard drives," Dan Verton, 19 January 2001, Computerworld, http://www.computerworld.com/securitytopics/security/story/0,10801,56567,00.html (as of June 23, 2003), "Los Alamos hard drives being examined for possible tampering," 19 June 2000, CNN.com, http://www.cnn.com/2000/US/06/19/los.alamos.01/ (as of June 23, 2003).  (back)

4.  "Red Faces at Los Alamos -- Again," CBSNEWS.com, 18 November 2002, http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2002/11/27/national/main531045.shtml (as of June 23, 2003).  (back)

5.  "Los Alamos Whistleblowers Testify," CBSNEWS.com, 26 February 2003, http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2003/01/30/eveningnews/main538678.shtml (as of June 23, 2003).  (back)

6.  "Los Alamos lab admits backlash against restive workers," Dan Stober, (San Jose Mercury News) SiliconValley.com, 12 March 2003, Manuel Trujillo, the UPTE union representative mentioned, is from Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, and was laid off. http://www.siliconvalley.com/mld/siliconvalley/business/columnists/gmsv/5372952.htm (as of June 23, 2003).  (back)

7.  Reports by Ian Hoffman, Sunday, 28 July 2002, Tri Valley Herald, (Livermore, CA).  (back)

8.  "Snitch," Will Harper, 30 April 2003, East Bay Express (Emeryville, CA). http://www.eastbayexpress.com/issues/2003-0430/feature.html/1/index.html (as of June 23, 2003).  (back)

9.  SPSE Newsletter, September 1992, "Editorial: Ranking Gone Awry," (by Richard White), http://www.spse.org/NL_3_92.pdf (as of June 23, 2003), and SPSE Newsletter, December 1992, "Editorial Update," (by Richard White), http://www.spse.org/NL_4_92.pdf (as of June 23, 2003).  (back)

10.  SPSE SENTINEL, April 2003, referring to The Recorder (http://www.law.com/regionals/ca//), 13 March 2003, on UC-LLNL court costs from 1999 to 2003, (eventually a pdf file at http://www.spse.org -- as of June 23, 2003), "Tri-Lab Joint Statement" (19 March 2003), http://www.spse.org/Tri-Lab%20Joint%20Stmt_3_03.html (as of June 23, 2003.  (back)

11.  "Unions Support Continuing U.C. Management of Labs Despite Criticisms," California Public Employee Relations Journal, No. 159, April 2003, Institute of Industrial Relations, University of California, Berkeley, pages 40-44, (http://cper.berkeley.edu/journal/index.html, subscription information -- as of June 23, 2003).  (back)

12.  "TLPJ Joins Gender Discrimination Class Action Against Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory: Thousands of Female Employees Press Case Over Fair Pay, Promotions," 1 February 2001, and summer 2001, Trial Lawyers for Public Justice, http://www.tlpj.org, at: http://www.tlpj.org/In_news_detail.htm, http://www.tlpj.org/sum01nwl.pdf, "Singleton et al. vs. Tarter and the UC Regents," and "1994 Women\'s Salary Study Made News--but not Newsline," SPSE Newsletter #1, March 1999, Patrick Weidhaas, editor, http://www.spse.org/NL_1_99.html, at: http://www.spse.org/NL_1_99.html#SingletonvRegents, http://www.spse.org/NL_1_99.html#1994Study (all URLs as of June 23, 2003).  (back)

13.  "DOE Weapons Laboratories: Actions Needed to Strengthen EEO Oversight," 22 April 2002, United States General Accounting Office, Report GA0-02-391, http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d02391.pdf (as of June 23, 2003).  (back)

14.  "Hostility Exposed, A Report on Racial Profiling and Discrimination in the National Nuclear Weapons Laboratories," 8 October 2002, Asian Pacific American Legal Center (APALC), Los Angeles, CA, http://www.apalc.org/brochures.htm (as of June 23, 2003).  (back)

15.  Between 1997 and the present, the UC received in fees up to $29.5 million annually for oversight of the three DOE labs, LANL, LLNL, LBNL: "Under the contracts UC will receive $14 million a year as a program performance fee. This is used by the university for any operating costs arising from the laboratories not otherwise reimbursed by the government or for discretionary research by or at the laboratories. This fee may be increased or decreased based on results of the laboratories' annual performance appraisals. The DOE also will provide $11 million annually as a fixed payment for the indirect costs of managing the laboratories and up to $4.5 million a year to fund the UC Laboratory Administration Office, which implements the performance-based management system established for the laboratories." UC Office of the President, News Release, 19 September 1997, http://labs.ucop.edu/internet/nr/nr091997a.html (as of June 23, 2003).

From Ian Hoffman, 12 May 2003, "For all three labs, the management cost is $17 million (mostly salaries in the UCOP Office of Lab Management, plus whatever fractions of other UC senior exec time are spent on labs) and the performance fee is $17.5 million (set aside for legal fees, fines and penalties not considered allowable costs by DOE; what's left is added to 6 percent of gross lab budget and distributed as LDRD.) As for the pension, the contract provides for DOE's contributions to be segregated within the UC pension fund so that, in event of separation (i.e., if LANL goes to another contractor) the federal contribution and all gains associated with it will travel to the next contractor. The amount is huge, I think it's several billion. But one is left arguing that the extra money simply garners bigger, better financial deals for UC."

Increased access, both to financial markets and government contracts and grants, is the prime benefit to the UC for managing the weapons labs [MG].  (back)

16.  "New Lawrence Livermore Lab director named," Dan Gallagher, 4 June 2002, East Bay Business Times (American City Business Journals Inc.) http://eastbay.bizjournals.com/eastbay/stories/2002/06/03/daily19.html (as of June 23, 2003).  (back)

17.  "'Boys Club' at lab cause of many problems," Dennis L. Flemming, 17 June 2003, Tri Valley Herald (Livermore), an op-ed by a Livermore Lab employee and attorney, who writes: "Yes, folks, your tax dollars are used as an inducement to encourage the lab to harass and retaliate against the employees for reporting anything the 'Boys Club' doesn't like, even things employees are required by law to report."  (back)


Published July 7, 2003
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