Challenging the Weapons Labs

This essay is reproduced here as it appeared in the print edition of the original Science for the People magazine. These web-formatted archives are preserved complete with typographical errors and available for reference and educational and activist use. Scanned PDFs of the back issues can be browsed by headline at the website for the 2014 SftP conference held at UMass-Amherst. For more information or to support the project, email

Challenging the Weapons Labs

An Interview With The University of California Nuclear Weapons Labs Conversion Project

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 13, No. 4, July/August 1981, p. 21–23

All of this country’s nuclear weapons are developed at two huge laboratories—located at Livermore, California, and Los Alamos, New Mexico—which are operated by the University of California (UC) under contract from the Federal Department of Energy (DOE). For nearly five years these labs, along with the issues and institutions connected with them, have been the object of a concentrated political campaign organized originally by activists in the San Francisco Bay Area and then spreading throughout California and making contact with corresponding efforts in other parts of the nation.

A description and critique of the labs, their work, U.S. nuclear weapons policy, the University’s role, along with proposals for change both immediate and long term, has been published elsewhere (see R. Arditti, et al. (eds.), “The University of California Operation of the Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos Scientific Laboratories,” in Science and Liberation, 1980; and A. Aron, “Earth Day at Livermore,” SftP 13:3, 1981). The following is an interview with members of the UC Nuclear Weapons Labs Conversion Project.

SftP: How did the Labs Conversion Project come into being?

Project: The founders of the Project were a few people with some years of experience at anti-war organizing. They thought the focus on these labs was a good tactic because it provided a local handle, giving people in the nearby communities some connection to the nuclear arms business, which is usually viewed as something out of sight and far away. They also saw the university connection as providing a provocative set of contra-dictions, as well as access to a number of intermediate officials who could be challenged directly—UC Regents and administrators. While participation and support for the project came from a large number of students and a few UC staff members, the core organizers came from long established peace groups (the War Resisters League, the American Friends Service Committee, etc.). Staying power provided by this relatively stable base had been essential to our progress; the other necessary ingredient has been our ability to inform, excite and mobilize a much larger number of concerned people outside of these circles.

SftP: Your efforts have been widely publicized. How did that come about?

Project: The media have been very responsive to our actions. Our first public event was a letter, circulated in October 1976, only a few months after our founding, asking the UC Regents to include the public in its meetings to review the University’s contracts with the weapons labs. The letter was co-signed by over a hundred people and was the focus of a local TV news spot. David Saxon, President of the University, agreed to meet with us, and promised to appoint a committee “in a month or so,” but indicated that he intended to push ahead with the contracts. The controversy was now public, and in January 1977, when the Project held its first demonstration calling for public participation in the re-view process, we got a good press response. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists editorialized that we had ”put a good question to the public” and were “potentially … something to be reckoned with.”

We’ve also made an effort to be news-worthy and furnish the press with useful data. We have been largely successful in getting the University to hold public meetings on the contract issue, and the press were of course interested. After one of these meetings the San Francisco Examiner ran a banner headline about UC scientists at Los Alamos aggressively lobbying for the development of the neutron bomb. The Weapons Project had uncovered that story.

SftP: So you do investigations. Is that the main focus of your work?

Project: Our main efforts are directed at mustering the research that we and others have done, and publicizing the results so that people will understand the dangers posed by the labs. During the spring of 1979, for example, we worked with Friends of the Earth to stage a large public hearing on the Draft Environ-mental Impact Statement for the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory (LLL). We brought in expert testimony on seismic instability of the Livermore area, on the potential hazards of plutonium leaks (and the inadequate methods used for testing for leaks), on genetic implications of nuclear power, and so on. Dr. Carl Johnson testified, Dr. John Gorman spoke, Daniel Ellsberg spoke, Charles Schwartz spoke1—each one focusing on another aspect of the dangers posed by the labs.

The original research we do is on the operation of the labs themselves. By attending virtually all meetings and read-ing all printed materials made available to the University’s Committee, we made ourselves experts on the labs’ activities, and when the Committee issued its re-port, we issued an Alternative Report. On several occasions, we’ve been able to upstage UC officials by knowing their business better than they do. They testified during a UC budget review by the California Legislature’s Ways and Means Committee that they have no figures for the actual cost of operating the two labs. The Project was able to produce the figures, and thereby to impress Governor Brown’s top aide for Science and Technology, who complimented us on the amount of data the Project had uncovered and presented.

SftP: What is the Governor’s position on the labs?

Project: Jerry Brown has maintained a consistent, if weak, call for ending UC’s ties to the weapons labs. Lacking support on the Board of Regents for this, he moved last fall that the university set up some more rigorous oversight of the laboratories’ activities and attempt to evaluate the social implications of the labs’ work. President Saxon and the majority of the Board watered this plan down considerably. Apparently they are determined to do nothing more than improve the labs’ “technical excellence” and provide some better public relations images. The Governor has the power to shift the majority of the Board considerably by the choice of new Regents whom he appoints each year, but he is a very opportunistic politician and we have learned to temper our belief in his fine promises with a great deal of doubt.

SftP: What kind of leverage does the Project have to counteract the PR of the University and the labs?

Project: Well, our actions have generated a lot of media attention; they have been publicized by the New York Times and other national papers, as well as by local papers and TV. For our Spring Action of 1979, when we brought out 4000 people in a rainstorm, for a protest rally at the lab—40 miles from Berkeley—that was news. In addition, with the help of the ACLU we’ve made significant progress in combatting the labs’ on-site propaganda, where it is distributed and broadcast. We successfully brought suit against LLL, which had denied us the right to place our literature at their fancy Visitors Center, and we now have use of the auditorium, provided that a lab employee requests its use. Last year the auditorium of Lawrence Livermore Laboratory was the site of an evening discussion of the arms race, with talks by economist Seymour Melman, author of The Permanent War Economy, and Rear Admiral Gene LaRocque of the Center for Defense Information, and also a screening of the film War Without Winners. Can you believe it? A public forum, at the laboratory, dealing with economic and political issues surrounding the laboratory’s work!

SftP: That’s amazing. Do the Lab’s officials regard you as a threat, or are the Labs so secure in their power that they consider you a minor irritant?

Project: They sometimes have a pretty bizarre perception of us. The week before our Spring Action of 1979, we spent a lot of time out at the Lab and in the town of Livermore. A small group of religious people from our group, including two Japanese Buddhists, decided to fast. With pictures of bombed out Hiroshima and Nagasaki set before them, the two Buddhists prayed from sunrise to sunset at the Visitors Center each day that week, steadily beating their ceremonial drums. At one point the head of LLL Security approached a Project member who was leafletting in the cafeteria and said, referring to the Buddhists, “We know that you know that those people have mirrors and that they are trying to blow out the central TV tube which keeps the camera on the entire grounds here. I just want you to know that if they do blow it out, we can replace it in 15 seconds.” The Project member was stunned.

On the other hand, the lab has produced intelligence reports on the “anti-nuclear community,” and the first of these, “Information Bulletin # 1” which came to us anonymously in the mail, indicated that they take us very seriously. Similarly, government officials in Washington consider us a serious threat. In 1979 DOE Secretary James Schlesinger (also former DOD Secretary and former AEC Chairman) announced the appointment of a special committee to study and evaluate the UC-Labs relationship from the viewpoint of the federal government’s needs. This Buchsbaum Committee was stacked with former directors of the weapons labs and other top-level science administrators whose loyalty to the nuclear establishment was beyond doubt. It was not difficult for us to stir up media interest in this farce and to give the committee a true Berkeley welcome when they appeared for the required “public hearing.”

SftP: What are the Project’s basic goals and strategies, and how have they changed?

Project: In the first months of the Project we collectively arrived at three fundamental goals, with the broad intention of involving large numbers of citizens in our work. We sought to convert the weapons-related work at Livermore and Los Alamos to useful, non-polluting work, to force the University to open up a public review of its relationship to the labs, and to obtain an independent environmental review of the dangers to health and public safety posed by the plutonium and other radioactive materials at the labs.

Soon, however, it was apparent that the University was not an effective force in reforming the labs nor even in providing a forum for debating the issues. Rather, by resisting debates inside the labs, by refusing unclassified information to Project members, by resisting a feasibility study of conversion possibilities, and by allowing lab (UC) officials to use their influence to further the work of the arms race, the University gives a “mantle of legitimacy” to the nuclear arms effort. It is this mantle of legitimacy that must be challenged. We therefore revised our statement of goals to include a call for the severance of all UC ties to the two weapons labs.

Our goals today are pretty much the same, but energy for the issues has subsided over the past six months. Several of the most active people have been taken away by family matters (babies, etc.), and several of those who saw the Conversion Project as a vehicle for organizing have grown tired of the issue and gone off in other directions. Our major effort now is outreach -to other campuses in an effort to mobilize student groups, and to communities in the San Francisco Bay Area.

SftP: What would you say have been the main achievements of the Project to date?

Project: The main achievements of the Project lie in the wealth of public education about the labs and the nuclear arms race which has resulted from our activities—directly, through teach-ins, literature, etc. which we and our supporters organized, and also indirectly, through the large amount of media coverage we have received. Challenging the authorities—those inside UC, those at the labs, and those sent out from Washington—has been an important step in that it shows how the globlll threat of nuclear war is in part rooted in the local power structure and therefore vulnerable to local demands. Getting a fair number of elected officials (as well as a few UC Regents) to speak out in partial, or sometimes full, support of our demands is important not only in showing the legitimacy of our views to doubtful members of the public, but also in confirming to us the large latent sentiment against present nuclear policies. When six Project members staged a sit-in at the office of David Saxon, President of the University, they were arrested and charged with trespass. After a week of testimony, including two hours by Saxon, the jury deliberated and found all six defendants not guilty. One of the jurors was so impressed by the protestors that she later joined the Project.

Particular efforts have been made to get the anti-nuclear power movement more aware and active in opposition to nuclear weapons. This meant opening political dialogue with environmentalists who at first did not want to touch the hot potato of “national defense” or risk being thought slightly pink. There has been real progress in this outreach.

Obviously, we have failed to achieve any of our stated goals: to end the nuclear arms race, to convert the weapons laboratories to peaceful pursuits, to get UC out of the nuclear weapons business or even to make it take some constructive responsibility for overseeing the labs. Right now the labs are rolling in money and expanding their weapons work, thanks to Reagan, and they may even be feeling cocky at having survived the challenges (and improved their PR capabilities).

Certainly we are dissatisfied that our efforts have not led to a much larger organization and a much larger base of supporters who can be mobilized. There is plenty of work to do and there are plenty of ideas about which directions to take. This much seems fair to say: we have succeeded in bringing the “unthinkable” issue of nuclear war and the “unthinkable” possibility of people challenging the U.S. nuclear weapons establishment farther out of the closet and into local public awareness than it has been for a long time.

>> Back to Vol. 13, No. 4<<


  1. Johnson, the Director of Public Health in Jefferson County, Colorado (home of the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant) challenged the safety of the physical plant and the methodology for checking plutonium leaks; Gofman, ex-director of LLL’s biomedical division, analyzed the threat to the genetic integrity of the population; Ellsberg spoke on the use of nuclear weapons to threaten other nations; and Schwartz, professor of physics at UC, discussed nuclear strategies.