Growing campus opposition to continued University of California management of the nation's two nuclear weapons laboratories has led a Department of Energy advisory board to recommend that the government prepare an alternative way of operating the two key defense facilities.
The Energy Research Advisory Board, in a report released Thursday, said any management shift "would be attended by serious problems and uncertainties." It would come at a time that the U.S. nuclear weapons building program is growing to its greatest peak in 20 years.
The university has served as manager for federal government of the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory in New Mexico since its founding by J. Robert Oppenheimer in 1943.
It took over the same function for the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory in California in 1952 when it was started at the urging of Edward H. Teller.
Opposition to continuing the relationship was summed up by University of California physics Prof. Charles Schwartz. On April 19 told the board that control of the labs "has been monopolized by a clique of weapons experts, subject to no significant external authority except the Pentagon."
While supporters of the labs say their roughly $750 million annual budget is almost equally divided between military and nonmilitary projects, Schwartz said, "energy projects are strongly subordinated to military goals and are in need of rigorous independent scrutiny to determine their value for the civilian energy needs of the nation."
Pushing aside such views, the energy board approved 14 to 4 on Thursday a subcommittee recommendation that DOE and the university try to work out their difficulties.
The most pressing issue is a new director for the Los Alamos laboratory.
Last November, then-director Harold Agnew told the university he intended to resign as of March 1. Under the contract with DOE, a new director is named by the university but the energy secretary must concur with that choice.
Seven months have passed and the university has yet to settle on a candidate.In the past, each lab has chosen its new director from among scientists working at its facility.
The current search, however, has gone far afield, and has become involved in the political question of whether nuclear weapons development is compatible with an academic institution.
With the choice of a Los Alamos director appearing controversial and still pending, Energy Secretary James Schlesinger last December asked his advisory board to explore the basic relationship between the department and the university.
In setting up the study, Schlesinger gave approval for a subcommittee of seven to handle the inquiry; that group included two retired lab directors, Agnew and Michael May, who once ran Livermore, and at least two former Pentagon Officials.
University critics of the lab association have charged the study group was loaded.
In making its report Thursday, the advisory group noted that "it is of the utmost importance that the U.S. retain in the crucial and controversial area affecting nuclear deterrence people who are at once technically outstanding and as independent as possible from bureaucratic and political restraints on the expression of unpopular views."
In describing laboratory operations, the panel said, "there is an independence of thought at the laboratories that allows the staff to speak freely, to propose new ideas and to oppose what they perceive as unwise courses of action advocated by others."
Those statements contradicted the position of those opposed to continued university association with the labs. The critics have frequently cited the strongly stated and influential opposition of the two lab directors to a comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty as an indication they are more interested in weapons building than in disarmament.
Last year, President Carter changed his position on the length of time a test ban should be in effect after hearing arguments from the lab directors.
The board report said "opponents of national policy" in the nuclear weapons field have led the opposition to the continuation of the university management role.
Interviews with "nearly all the regents," the report found, as well as the university President David Saxon, supported maintaining the relationship "as a public service."
Some regents, however, reportedly oppose that position. Thus the study group found "if a sufficient number of regents could not support the laboratories' mission" the contract would have to be terminted.