Published on Thursday, March 30, 2006 by Tom Dispatch
Privatizing the Apocalypse
by Frida Berrigan
Started as the super-secret "Project Y" in 1943, the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico has long been the keystone institution of the American nuclear-weapons producing complex.
It was the birthplace of Fat Man and Little Boy, the two nuclear bombs the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.
Last year, the University of California, which has managed the lab for the Department of Energy since its inception, decided to put Los Alamos on the auction block.
In December 2005, construction giant Bechtel won a $553 million yearly management contract to run the sprawling complex, which employs more than 13,000 people and has an estimated $2.2 billion annual budget.
"Privatization" has been in the news ever since George W. Bush became president.
His administration has radically reduced the size of government, turning over to private companies critical governmental functions involving prisons, schools, water, welfare, Medicare, and utilities as well as war-fighting, and is always pushing for more of the same.
Outside of Washington, the pitfalls of privatization are on permanent display in Iraq, where companies like Halliburton have reaped billions in contracts.
Performing jobs once carried out by members of the military -- from base building and mail delivery to food service -- they have bilked the government while undermining the safety of American forces by providing substandard services and products.
Halliburton has been joined by a cottage industry of military-support companies responsible for everything from transportation to interrogation.
On the war front, private companies are ubiquitous, increasingly indispensable, and largely unregulated -- a lethal combination.
Now, the long arm of privatization is reaching deep into an almost unimaginable place at the heart of the national security apparatus --- the laboratory where scientists learned to harness the power of the atom more than 60 years ago and created weapons of apocalyptic proportions.
Nuclear weapons are many things to many people -- the sword of Damocles or the guarantor of American global supremacy, the royal path to the apocalypse or atoms for peace.
BWX and Honeywell formed a new company along with Bechtel to manage and operate the Pantex Plant in Texas which assembled nuclear weapons throughout the Cold War.
At least ten different subcontractors are involved in managing the Hanford nuclear complex.
But the famed nuclear laboratories, Los Alamos, Lawrence Livermore, and Sandia -- where the high priests of nuclear physics are free to explore the outer realms of their craft -- have long been above prosaic bottom-line or board-room considerations.
The keystone of the nuclear complex, it has been dogged by missing classified computer disks, cost overruns on its expensive new projects, and an outspoken cadre of scientists who found their voice on LANL: The Real Story, a blog where once deferential employees blew off steam and exposed lapses in lab management.
Pete Domenici, Republican Senator and Chairman of the powerful Energy and Water Committee, thinks so.
The company reaped tens of millions of dollars in contracts to repair Iraq's schools, for example, but an independent report found that many of the schools Bechtel claimed to have completely refitted, "haven't been touched," and a number of schools remained "in shambles."
It helped build a missile-defense site in the South Pacific, runs the Nevada Test Site where the United States once performed hundreds of above-and underground nuclear tests.
Bechtel is also the "environmental manager" at the Oak Ridge National Lab, which stores highly-enriched uranium, and is carrying out design work at the Yucca Mountain repository where the plan to store 77,000 tons of nuclear waste has environmentalists and community activists up in arms.
Almost two decades after the "nuclear animosity" between the two great superpowers ended, the United States is spending one-and-a-half times the Cold War average on nuclear weapons.
In 2001, the weapons-activities budget of the Department of Energy, which oversees the nuclear weapons complex through its "semi-autonomous" National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), totaled $5.19 billion; and a "revitalized nuclear weapons complex," ready to "design, develop, manufacture, and certify new warheads," means a more than billion-dollar jump in spending to $6.4 billion by fiscal year 2006.
Under each of these programs are many other acronym-heavy, cash-rich programs that seem to lead nowhere -- except toward further nuclear proliferation.
Do nuclear weapons have a role in the "Age of Terror" -- other than as potential weapons for terrorist groups?
In a new and ever-shifting environment of emerging regional powers and wars that transcend national boundaries, the Bush administration is taking a have-it-both-ways approach: It is pushing aggressive non-proliferation policies for chosen enemy nations and embracing a policy of accelerated nuclear proliferation for itself.
Yet, a new era of nuclear weapons for profit threatens to turn Armageddon into a paying operation.
Summarized by Copernic Summarizer