University of California
and the development of WMDs

LANL and LLNL Today

UC President Robert Dynes

The UC Regents

Bidding on the Bomb Lab:
Article from ZMag

Shuffling the Nuclear
Weapons Complex:

Rethinking the UC's
management, media scrutiny,
and laboratory objectives.

Salaries of UC Employees


UC Manages Armageddon:
The University of California and Nuclear Weapons.

The model example of military university collaborative research is the inception, design, and creation of the atomic bomb. Conceived and developed by University of California, the creation of the most deadly device ever made was a product of research funded by the military and conducted by an elite group of Americaís university scientists, professors and graduate students.

Since the Los Alamos Laboratory opened its doors in 1943, every single nuclear weapon built for the United States arsenal was designed at a University of California managed weapons laboratory. The history of the development of Los Alamos and the second National Laboratory, Lawrence Livermore laid the foundation for the last fifty years of military research and development conducted on Americaís college campuses.

In the spring of 1942, Robert Oppenheimer, later dubbed the father of the atomic bomb, was asked by University of Chicago physicist Arthur Holly Compton to work with him on studying the feasiblity of producing a nuclear weapon. With studies under way on the manufacture of Plutonium and Uranium, both scientists eagerly researched ways in which a "superbomb" could be created. In June of that same year, Oppenheimer organized a summer study at his university, UC Berkeley. Attendees included Compton from the Metallurgical Laboratory at the University of Chicago, graduate student Robert Serber of the University of Illinois, and several physics theorists including Edward Teller. The June 1942 meeting at UCB provided the theoretical basis for the design of the atomic bomb, which was to become the principal task at Los Alamos during the war.

Upon discovery that the production of a nuclear bomb was possible, the scientists still had questions they need answered, instruments necessary for production, and a full-time staff consisting of Americaís most advanced scientists, many of whom were prestigious faculty of some of the nationís public research institutions. The LANLís website details the need for a laboratory dedicated to nuclear research: "By September 1942, the difficulties involved with conducting preliminary studies on nuclear weapons at universities scattered throughout the country indicated the need for a laboratory dedicated solely to that purpose."(1) Theoretical studies were well underway up until this point, but a laboratory dedicated to production, research, design, and testing was soon underway, under command of General Leslie Groves, who was deputy to the chief of construction for the Army Corps of Engineers during construction of the Pentagon.

In 1943 construction on the Los Alamos National Laboratory was completed. Los Alamos in New Mexico was chosen by Oppenheimer and Groves because of its isolated location (it had to be at least 200 miles from any ocean or national boundary), mild climate, and because "Canyons surrounding the site could be used for explosives tests."(1) The Office of Scientific Research and Development provided funding, and the small town of Los Alamos was forcefully evacuated under military command in February 1943. Among the crew of 450 scientists and technicians to immediately move into Los Alamos were Ernest Lawrence, founder of both the UC Berkeley and MIT Radiation Laboratories, and whom the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory would later be named, as well as scientists from Stanford, Purdue, Columbia, University of Illinois, and University of Rochester. The scientists saw their new lab not as a military institution, but, "instead, it was to become an outpost of academia."(1)

The University of California Signs a Contract

On January 23, 1943 the Office of Scientific Research (OSRD) and Development issued a preliminary letter to the University of California Regents announcing ìcertain investigations to be directed by Dr. J. R. Oppenheimerî at the Los Alamos Labs. Contracts between the UC and the OSRD had been conducted in similar fashion before, for institutoins such as the UC Radiation Laboratory. "Robert M. Underhill, the secretary of the Regents of the University of California, understood that the contract would be similar to the other OSRD contracts at Berkeley and, on that basis, agreed with UC President Robert Gordon Sproul to accept the letter of intent on Feb. 10, 1943."(1)

The Manhattan District of the Corps of Engineers (MED), taking over work on production of the Laboratory from the OSRD, sealed the deal on April 15, 1943 when the University of California Regents signed a contract to manage the Labs, a contract that has remained intact for six decades. General Groves was intent on a military takeover of the institution down the road, but many scientists were vigorously supportive of University management for credibility and access to top scientists. At least one scientist, the head of the physics division at Los Alamos issued a letter of resignation that would be effective upon the transition of the labs from the UC to the military.

Interestingly, the UC Regents upon signing the contract were unaware of the project to build a nuclear bomb at the Los Alamos site. Not until after the war, after the bombs had been used to kill and maim millions of Japanese civilians, did the University really become aware of what it was managing. Following the war, a weak attempt was made to sever ties with the labs, but it was never accomplished. Today, the University of California takes a proud stance on its management of the labs, calling it a "public service to the nation."(2)

The Atomic Energy Commission, created in 1947, was formed to oversee "nuclear weapons research, development, production, and testing; production of plutonium and weapons grade uranium; milling and refining of uranium ore; biomedical research into the effects of radiation and nuclear weapons; basic nuclear research in fields such as chemistry, physics, and metallurgy; development of nuclear reactors; and promotion of a civilian nuclear power industry".3 Since its inception, which was a direct result of the creation of the national nuclear laboratories, the AEC has been responsible for funding and oversight of the management of the labs by the UC. In 1975, the AEC became a part of the Department of Energy, with whom the UC is now contracted in the management of both LANL and LLNL.

In 1952 UC founded the second national weapons laboratory, Lawrence Livermore located in the East Bay, transferring many research scientists from the UC Berkeley Radiation Laboratory for increased work on nuclear weapons. It was believed that the creation of a second laboratory would instigate a rivalry between scientists at both labs, creating an atmosphere of competition that would spur technological discoveries, and would fuel a US advantage in the arms race.