On nuclear energy, UC can’t move forward without looking back

CAMPUS ISSUES: UC can only continue its involvement with Los Alamos National Laboratory if it does not forget its destructive past.

Alexander Hong/Staff

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“Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” So said former UC Berkeley physics professor and head of the Manhattan Project Julius Robert Oppenheimer, quoting from a sacred Hindu text, as he watched the world’s first nuclear weapon detonation on July 16, 1945. Today marks the anniversary of the tragedy at Nagasaki, where the United States dropped its second weaponized atomic bomb, causing the deaths of at least 75,000 people and turning Oppenheimer’s utterance into his truth.

Despite the horrors of UC Berkeley’s involvement with the development of nuclear weaponry, the school continues to honor his legacy. Nestled between Le Conte and Hildebrand halls is Oppenheimer Way, named after the aforementioned researcher. By openly celebrating the man who developed this weapon, the school is honoring the tragedy he helped make possible at the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

The laboratory, once a secret research site for the Manhattan Project, is now a world-renowned center that leads the country in energy research. Today, the lab’s research has expanded to the development of alternative energy and medical technology. But even though the lab is now directed toward more ethical, human-conscious ventures, it’s important that the University of California doesn’t continue to brush aside the legacy of Los Alamos Lab and UC Berkeley’s involvement in nuclear research.

In July, the UC Board of Regents, along with several other institutions, won a bid for management of the historic laboratory. UC President Janet Napolitano said at a regents meeting that this management “further solidifies the UC’s status as a national, scientific and research leader and a critical partner in protecting national security.” But in addition to a gain in status and access to state-of-the-art facilities, the UC system is estimated to earn a net fee of $24.6 million in 2018 for the management of both Los Alamos Lab and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

Of all the insights gleaned during the past century of research, the most important is that developments in a lab carry an impact that extends far beyond the walls of any research facility. Control of these laboratories is an undoubtedly auspicious gain for the UC system.

The nuclear engineering department requires its students to take one class with an emphasis on ethics, but this effort is not nearly enough. More must be done to educate students and researchers on the societal implications research can have — morality needs to be woven into every lesson taught in STEM fields on campus. Going forward, the university must be explicit about distinguishing between excitement for a prosperous future and glorification of a destructive past.

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  • The_Bishop_of_D

    UC Berkeley is the only University campus on the planet listed in the periodic table of the elements. The circumstances giving rise to the adjacent listing of Californium and Berkelium are unique, and are likely to remain that way. This is prologue, but it informs the need to adopt a broader perspective. The discussion must include the mission of the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory aka the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, not just the Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos facilities. The overall mission is much more extensive than merely producing Plutonium. Consider, for instance, the production of medical radioisotopes: The Lawrence Berkeley facility is generally acknowledged as the birthplace of nuclear medicine.

    Be careful what you wish for. With the exception of very few individuals, the campus community is probably unaware of just how close it came (after the cessation of hostilities ending WWII) to losing at least one of its future Nobel Laureates to the University of Chicago (which was the site of the Metallurgical Laboratory and the first nuclear reactor capable of a self sustaining reaction)?

    The loss to the University would have been incalculable.

    Do not make the mistake of judging the events of the past by the standards of the present day.

  • jimhopf

    For starters, we have a title that refers to nuclear “energy” for an editorial that is talking about nuclear weapons. That conflation being a long-used, anti nuclear power propaganda tool.

    Even their main point that the development of the bomb was evil/unethical is highly debatable, with most people, to this day, arguing that dropping the bomb was the right decision. And of course, we have the double standards, where the casualties from the atomic bombs are focused on and characterized as a horrific, unforgivable tragedy, whereas the much larger number of deaths caused by conventional weapons are relatively ignored (and accepted). Many people also argue that nuclear weapons have actually saved millions of lives by preventing major wars, ever since their original development. Check out this thought-provoking article by a well known environmentalist:


    And finally, we have the condescension concerning the need for “ethics” training, the implication being that people working in the nuclear field must lack a moral compass. The truth being that we think about such issues far *more* than most people. The prime motivation behind nuclear power, and most of the people who work in the field (e.g., those who study and work at Berkeley) is environmental, i.e., developing clean energy sources that will reduce pollution and address the global warming problem. And that’s just nuclear power. I haven’t even mentioned other aspects of nuclear technology, such as nuclear medicine which has saved millions of lives.

    You know what IS unethical? *Opposition* to nuclear power! Statistics, and the ~50-year operational record show that the use of nuclear power has *saved* millions of lives, and would have saved millions more if its use hadn’t been hampered and limited by political opposition. The global warming problem would have also been significantly less severe. Don’t take my word for it. Take it from genuine environmentalists and leaders of the global warming campaign:


    The facts and scientific consensus are clear that risks and negative impacts of nuclear are orders of magnitude less than those associated with fossil power generation. The most unethical thing of all about the anti-nuclear power movement is the level of intellectual dishonesty. Outright lying to the public about the risks and impacts of nuclear power, literally making them out to be thousands to millions of times larger than they really are. Also, denying any benefits. How is agenda-driven dishonesty ethical?

    • Joffan

      That’s exactly it. Righteous.

  • That Guy

    Perhaps the dumbest editorial this year though I understand the competition is fierce. “weaponized atomic bomb” ?????? Is there a “non-weaponized atomic bomb”???? And it goes downhill from there… It is not surprising that Cal continues to decline in scientific reputation. Once the undisputed leader in the UC system is is now well below UCLA and is headed to Sac State territory.

  • This is a very misinformed editorial. Los Alamos National Laboratory is about 70% devoted to nuclear weapons, all told, not counting ancillary missions like environmental cleanup which are closely related. There is almost no renewable energy research; though there is a little bit of nuclear power research. UC and LANL are in the business of manufacturing the plutonium cores of nuclear weapons and have been working closely with the Trump Administration to greatly expand this product line by building underground factory “modules” as well as by investing billions in existing production facilities, which brand-new UC-catalyzed legislation suggests may be run around the clock to increase nuclear weapon production. Get real, please. To learn more, start with http://www.lasg.org/MPF2/first_page.html.

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