UC Berkeley: Nuclear Weapons and Whistleblowers

Historical Essay
by Josh Hardman
Part 5 of 6 in A History of Repression at UC Berkeley.

Ronald Reagan and Lowell Wood
Illustration by Brad Hamann in Blum, Deborah. 1988. "Weird Science: Livermore's X-Ray Laser Flap". Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists 44 (6), 9

The Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) was founded in 1952 by the University of California, an addition to the pre-existing UC Radiation Laboratory at Berkeley. The Lab focussed on new weapon designs, with many of the warheads designed at Livermore being stationed and used throughout the Cold War, and has been the target of many protests, most notably those of the Livermore Action Group who organised mass nonviolent demonstrations between 1981 and 1984 [1]. There was also scrutiny from within the University community and among staff, demonstrated by the ad hoc group of around 12 Berkeley faculty members that took it upon themselves to keep the entire faculty up-to-date on the latest Lab-related scandals. This group, which included mathematician Keith Miller who fortunately preserved a personal archive of their communications, was active between 1986-1990, during which time the Lab, and the UC administration, was embroiled in multiple displays of dishonesty and deceit.

Demonstration at Lawrence Livermore Laboratories, 1982.
Photo: FoundSF

Anti-nuclear protest on perimeter of the LLNL
Photo: FoundSF

The ad hoc committee of faculty sought to make public the dereliction of the University’s responsibilities in overseeing and regulating the Labs, in hope of making the administration more active in their management of both the Livermore and Los Alamos facilities. At the center of the controversies were Edward Teller and his protégé Lowell Wood, who headed the Strategic Defense Initiative efforts at LLNL, enchanting Reagan by stoking his Star Wars dreams with their glorified plans and designs. Keith Miller and the ad hoc committee exposed Teller’s fabrications and overselling of his ‘Super Excalibur’ X-ray laser, and the silencing of Roy Woodruff’s attempts to correct Teller’s extravagant claims. Woodruff, a well-respected researcher who had been at the Lab for 21 years and was director of Livermore’s weapons programs at the time, publicly questioned Star Wars’ feasibility, but was met with repression by the Labs and UC President David Gardner. Woodruff was punished for his whistleblowing through reassignment to a menial job [2] in a “windowless cubbyhole” [3], and ultimately resigned in October 1985 in protest of his silencing under Lab Director Batzel, taking up a new job at the Los Alamos lab in New Mexico: suggesting the situation at Berkeley’s LLNL was particularly dire.

Reagan awarding Teller the National Medal of Science, 1983
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The power afforded to Edward Teller’s claims, and the repression of Roy Woodruff’s criticisms, alludes to the close relations between the Lab’s directorship, the UC administration, and the Reagan administration. The combination of the Lab’s geographic location half an hour southeast of Berkeley, its connection to the UC, and the emphatic backing of the Reagan administration all allowed the dubious and at times delusional programs of Teller and Wood to be insulated from public debate and scrutiny, resulting in an oversight vacuum in which programs were self-perpetuating in their momentum [4]. In this localised history of UC Berkeley, however, it is appropriate to avoid focusing too heavily on national players. For this broader narrative, William J. Broad’s Teller’s War [5] is seminal. Instead, our attention should be piqued by the substantial efforts of UC President Gardner’s office to silence Woodruff’s complaints and cover up the scandals, in spite of established grievance policies at the University and the California whistleblower statute.

In the interest of being more concrete, the deliberate and repeated obstruction of the Oversight and Investigations of the House Committee on Commerce and Energy by the Lab should be briefly chronicled, for it offers a sobering insight into the extent of interference and collusion Gardner’s office was responsible for [6]. In January of 1989, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) x-ray laser report collapsed, with 5 out of the 8 scientists involved in the interviews claiming they were misrepresented. President Gardner refused to investigate the allegations or meet with Woodruff, and suspicions concerning conspiracy between the Labs and GAO auditors were somewhat vindicated when David Potter, one of the three men on the GAO inspection team, was hired by Livermore in 1989 for a substantial pay increase shortly after the GAO report was made public. Furthermore, documents acquired by the ad hoc committee of faculty via the California Information Practices Act reveal that a draft of the GAO report was circulated, pre-publication, to senior officials of the LLNL for comments, however Woodruff never received a copy, and Lowell Wood himself provided the most extensive comments.

Following the collapse of the GAO report, the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations launched a probe in March 1989, under the initiative of congressman John Dingell. Interviews were scheduled with 50 Lab, University, and Department of Energy (DoE) employees involved in the x-ray laser controversy, which sought to discover whether Teller and Wood’s laser had been oversold, and whether Woodruff had been punished for his whistleblowing efforts. The Subcommittee’s efforts were hampered by obstruction and contamination of interviews by the DoE and UC lawyers, which are explained further in a scathing letter from Dingell to DoE secretary James Watkins. Dingell chastised the University for its role in this obstruction of congressional oversight [7], which included using UC attorneys to ‘interview’ prospective informants before the Subcommittee was present.

With their x-ray laser under scrutiny, Wood and Teller went back to the drawing board and devised ‘Brilliant Pebbles’: thousands of small orbiting rockets, each with a miniature computer programmed to detect and destroy “any behaviour that’s out of line” [8]. This new proposal kept the embers of Reagan’s Star Wars dream alive, with President Bush visiting the LLNL in February 1990 for briefings on the plans, declaring “In the 1990s strategic defense makes much more sense than ever before” [9]. UC President Gardner and UC Regents Chair Brophy were among those on stage for the post-briefing celebrations, in which Bush praised Teller emphatically for the new scheme, confirming that the close collaboration between the Labs, the University, and the government was not a uniquely Reagan phenomenon.

The series of controversies at the LLNL, and the treatment of those who attempted to hold the University accountable to the appropriate management and oversight of the Labs, exemplifies UC Berkeley’s proximity to the wishes of the Reagan and early Bush administration during the 1980s and early 1990s. While Berkeley professes to be, and enjoys a reputation as, a public university, it was clearly abusing its power to actively shield the Lab’s programs from public scrutiny, using a host of legal and political manoeuvrings to do so. Thus, not only did the UC facilitate the overselling of infeasible and thus potentially hazardous nuclear technologies, but it also abdicated its responsibilities as a public institution, misusing its status for suspect ends.

Continue Reading...

Part 1: The Early 20th Century
Part 2: The Loyalty Oath Controversy, 1949-51
Part 3: The Closure of the School of Criminology, 1976
Part 4: Fighting for Tenure
Part 5: Nuclear Weapons and Whistleblowers
Part 6: The 21st Century: GMOs and Corporate Agendas


[1] Epstein, Barbara Leslie. 1993. Political Protest And Cultural Revolution. 1st ed. Berkeley: University of California Press.
[2] Dye, Lee. 1990. "Dissenter On 'Star Wars' Leaves Livermore Lab". LA Times.
[3] Blum, Deborah. 1988. "Weird Science: Livermore's X-Ray Laser Flap". Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists 44 (6): 7-13. Note: This article offers an excellent account of the controversy up to 1988, and includes primary sources.
[4] Bjork, Rebecca S. 1992. The Strategic Defense Initiative. 1st ed. Albany: State University of New York Press, 89
[5] Broad, William J. 1992. Teller's War. 1st ed. New York: Simon & Schuster.
[6] Note: the following details are drawn from primary documents obtained from Keith Miller (Professor of Mathematics and member of the ad hoc committee), with earlier events corroborated by Blum, 1988. "Weird Science: Livermore's X-Ray Laser Flap". Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists.
[7] Blum, Deborah. May 21st, 1989. "UC Lawyers Target Of Protest: They Hampered Probe Of Livermore Lab, House Staffers Say". Sacramento Bee.
[8] Letter obtained from Keith Miller, A Brief History of Our Disillusionment, sent to faculty by the ad hoc committee on March 2, 1990.
[9] Smith, Kathie. February 8th, 1990. "BUSH PRAISES WORK AT LIVERMORE". Modesto Bee.