Under Review: ‘The University of Nuclear Bombs’


It is commonly assumed that public universities are solely financed through student tuition and state taxpayer support. Sure, there are grants from foundations, overhead payments from research contracts, and so on, but many have envisioned our universities as pure bastions where teachers and students have the opportunity to freely exchange ideas, experiment, and lay the foundation for the progress of a nation and the world.

It is also commonly assumed, especially by those of us living in Washington State, the home of Hanford, the plutonium production site of the first atom bomb, that the federal government has been the sole employer of the US weapons program.

It’s just that the funding channel between these two, the university and the US weapons program, is easily missed. It is this connection that is at the center of “The University of Nuclear Bombs.”

J. Robert Oppenheimer, who led the development of the US nuclear weapons program, was first a physics professor at both the University of California at Berkeley and CalTech. It was through federal funding, given to the University of California, that Oppenheimer was hired as the director of the Los Alamos Lab. There he gathered scientists and some of his own former students into a secret cadre that developed the atomic bombs that were dropped on Japan in 1945.

In this film, Daniel Ellsberg, former US Security Advisor, is documented as saying, “It’s almost inconceivable to realize that every nuclear weapon the US has ever had has been designed by one university, the University of California.”

While Ellsberg is absolutely correct about the money trail from the nuclear arms industry, the film does not explain that UC really has had a lot less to do with bomb design. As a matter of fact, it would be misleading to think that UC used California taxpayer funds or UC staff to finance or work in the US nuclear weapons program.

As explained to me by a retired Stanford physicist, federal funds go to UC and UC then pays those working on the federal project from those funds. The caveat is that because UC is the imprimatur, lending its prestigious name and auspices of quality to the program, as well as the financial conduit, it gets a cut of the federal funds.

It is important to note in this convoluted chain that no nuclear bomb was ever directly designed at a UC campus though there are de facto UC employees at the weapons labs. It is true that many of the nuclear scientists were either past UC university professors or educated at UC and that the direction of their instruction may have been influenced by theoretical applications to nuclear weaponry.

However, the important thing to note is the complicity between a public education system and a controversial arms industry.

This documentary is the story about UC students learning of this complicity, past and current, and what they did about it.

The film begins with a student-led demand that the University of California Board of Regents withdraw “fully and immediately from their contracts to manage the Los Alamos National Lab and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory on the grounds that the reliable replacement program and Los Alamos’s ongoing preparations to conduct plutonium pit manufacturing both clearly violate Article 6 of the 1970 Nuclear nonproliferation treaty.”

“UNB” explains that when WWII ended, the US government continued funding weapons research at UC. Both the Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore Labs were projects of Ernest Lawrence and Edward Teller, who both lobbied the government to make these labs national laboratories with federal funding.

UC became, in effect, the manager of the weapons projects and received a guaranteed stream of revenue. The film correctly indicates that the UC academic scientific community gave weapons development a “white-coated aura” – making it more palatable and attractive for public support.

“UNB” points out that the ruling body of UC is the 26-member Board of Regents. Eighteen are appointed by the governor and 7 are ex-officio members of the state bureaucracy, allegedly selected via political patronage. The doc explains that there is no form of checks and balances for them to represent their constituencies – not the faculty, staff, students, or even the public.

Given the pacifist movements in the last twenty years for arms reductions and for a zero nuclear weapons policy, it seems a little unsettling that the taxpayers of California are not only helping to finance a system of education that is involved in the weapons industry, but sending their children to schools that are very possibly governed by a system of ethics and ideals antithetical to their own – without their knowledge.

But, is it “safer” to have a weapons industry overseen by a university as opposed to a company like, say, Halliburton?

Are there some things, like weapons development, that should be housed in our nation’s top research universities but kept secret from the public?

Is it misleading or unethical to channel federal funds through public universities for potentially controversial projects?

The “UNB” trailer prepared me for a far-left radical documentary. But the bottom line is that this film has turned out to be well-done, providing a good foundation for some public debate over funding for our schools as well as the sustainability of a national nuclear weapons program in general.


Directed and Produced: Joshua King Ortiz and Mohamed Elsawi
Edited and written: Joshua King Ortiz
Exec producer and cinematographer: Mohamed Elsawi
Length: 55 minutes
Released: 2010 USA

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4 Comments Add Yours ↓

  1. Adam Poynter #

    Sounds educational and informative.

  2. Less Peripatetically Perplexed #

    Bev Questad artfully shows that one needs to follow the money trail to understand the ins and outs of nuclear weaponry.
    George Bernard Shaw raised the relevant question in Major Barbara: Shouldn’t one even take money from the devil, if it is for a good cause?
    This is the dilemma faced by the University of California, as well as the Salvation Army in Shaw’s play.

  3. Jimmy #

    A lot of useful information here.

  4. keke #

    Scary stuff! I need to see this documentary.

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