Monday, April 05, 2010

Profit, Loss, and Proliferation

Reducing Nuclear Weapons, Jobs, and Innovation

by Cheryl Rofer and Molly Cernicek

How good can you feel about cuts in the nuclear arsenal if your paycheck depends on nuclear weapons and their delivery vehicles? Not very, say the residents of Judith Gap, Montana.
Montana, North Dakota and Wyoming business leaders over the past year have lobbied their congressional delegations, all the while avoiding arguments about whose base is more important, said Dale Steenbergen, president and CEO of the Greater Cheyenne Chamber of Commerce.

Instead, they are trying to persuade Congress to keep the ICBM silos at full strength, arguing that they are relatively cheap to maintain and are more secure compared to bombers and submarines that also carry nuclear weapons.
It’s the military who operate those ICBM silos, but it’s private industry who operate the nuclear weapons design and production complex. They are under contract to the Department of Energy, to be sure, but the corporations are the same ones who make a bundle on contracts to the Department of Defense. Batelle, Bechtel, The Washington Group, Lockheed, CH2M Hill, Fluor Daniel, SAIC, Jacobs Engineering, Westinghouse, Kaiser-Hill, BWXT, and Honeywell are some of the more well-known with a fig leaf of universities mixed in.

Those Department of Energy sites are located in several states, including California, Washington, Idaho, New Mexico, Iowa, South Carolina, Tennessee, Nevada, Texas, and Missouri. There are numerous representatives and senators who will be contacted by lobbyists and citizens reminding them that nuclear weapons mean jobs as the New START treaty and other nuclear agreements come up for ratification. And, particularly in today’s difficult economy, that’s a real dilemma for some of our legislators. And yes, representatives may have a hand in the New Start treaty.

The companies that run the nuclear weapons complex are under contract to the Department of Energy and have a number of restrictions placed upon them. Bell Labs ran Sandia National Laboratories for many years, and its management wasn’t a lot different from the University of California’s at Los Alamos and Livermore. For that matter, DuPont ran a number of the production sites for the government during and after the Manhattan Project. Their contract specified a payment of one dollar a year for their services. But those were different times.

Since the 1980s, profit-making has been celebrated, and the argument has been made that profit-making companies will be more efficient than the government. And, as we’ve seen in the Department of Defense contracting, the companies are happy to oblige in the matter of their profit. As time goes on, more questions are raised about efficiency and effectiveness.

Profit-making companies prior to the 1980s saw their work for the government as a public service not just for the sake of the red, white and blue, but because they saw an opportunity to get in on the ground floor of the country’s innovation, improving their research and product development. The models for this government contracting were focused on pushing the limits in nuclear physics, chemistry, materials, and engineering without being encumbered by stakeholder expectations of profit as the driver of technology development.

Most recently, the management of the weapons design laboratories (Los Alamos and Livermore) has been shifted from the University of California to private corporations. An unfortunate side-effect of that privatization is its impact on innovation coming from the labs. Very few big corporations in this country create new technologies and product that create new billion dollar markets and fundamentally change the way we live. Apple, Microsoft and Google are unusual in this respect, and their greatest innovations took place as they were growing.

Defense contractors in general are not innovation drivers. They provide services and build products based on technologies developed outside their organizations. Universities and companies that spin-off from universities are fertile ground for new technologies that have huge impacts on the country’s innovation.

A culture that supported cutting-edge research in the national laboratories was set by Bell Labs under AT&T, the University of California, University of Chicago, Princeton, and many other universities. What made these university-government relations so successful in the areas of scientific and engineering breakthroughs was the open thinking of the university interacting with large projects, some of which supported big facilities for advanced scientific experiments. There was far more to the national laboratories than nuclear weapons development and maintenance.

What does this all have to do with ICBM silos in Montana, North Dakota and Wyoming? In its effort to reduce costs and improve safety, security, and efficiency by bringing in defense contractors, the US government may have moved the incentives for the nuclear weapons complex from innovation to a service-based business model. That puts the contractors in the same position as the ICBM workers: reducing reliance on nuclear weapons means reducing their profits and challenging them to meet new objectives. There is no incentive to move to other forms of work as that demands further investments into higher-risk endeavors. When the University of California managed Los Alamos, Livermore and Lawrence Berkeley, it redirected nearly half of its management fee back into the Laboratories for further research, campus collaborations, and unforeseen costs.

If Montana, North Dakota and Wyoming stay in the business of ICBM stewardship, they will find themselves in a worse economic predicament when the United States Congress is forced to cull its defense-related spending. Likewise, Congress will need to reassess the value of its nuclear weapons complex and what it is willing to pay for it despite the best of lobbying efforts.

While our biggest potential nuclear competitor Russia is struggling to get footing outside of natural resource exploitation, lesser nuclear counterparts like China are heavily investing in nanotechnology, information technology, advanced manufacturing, green energy, aerospace and biotechnology. The question now is – how do we translate the work of the nuclear weapons complex into innovation development to support the United States’ future, rather than on cashing in on the past?

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