The Purdue University community first read on April 6, 2018 about a contract bid that the university and the Bechtel Corporation proposed to manage the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. The contract would be worth $22 billion over a decade, a huge boost to Purdue’s finances. In an updated story on May 27 readers were reminded that the National Nuclear Security Administration could decide on whether the Purdue/Bechtel bid would prevail over other competitors by the end of May (Dave Bangert, “Is Purdue Ready to Run Los Alamos?” Journal and Courier.)
The first story came as a surprise to most members of the Purdue community. The May 27 story refers to Purdue President Mitch Daniels’ explanation about his reluctance to reveal too much about the contract bid as it was originally reported in April. “At the time, Daniels was treading lightly-out of respect, he said, for the bidding process-but offered this to the J&C. ‘I do believe this is the sort of level Purdue should be playing at, let me put it that way.’”
The relative secrecy of this bid to run the nation’s major nuclear weapons facility is reminiscent of the argument made in a recent book by historian Nancy MacLean, Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America. In it, MacLean traces the intellectual development of the libertarian right and their organized connections with the Koch Brothers and state programs to promote their political agenda. What is relevant here is MacLean’s argument that many of the libertarian right’s policy proposals would be opposed if public discourse and majoritarian democracy prevailed. Consequently, she suggests, efforts are made to limit transparency, public discussion, and legislative and electoral participation in major public policies. This approach contradicts universities where faculty should have some role in decision-making on research and educational policy.
There are a number of issues that the Bechtel/Purdue relationship raises. First, Bechtel and the University of California ran the labs from 2006 through 2017 and lost their contract because of serious workplace accidents. As Pro-Publica puts it: “Analysts and experts say the fact that Bechtel and UC are even in contention for such a plum contract shows that the government prioritizes the lab’s nuclear-related work over workplace safety,” (Rebecca Moss, “Two Leading Bidders for Lucrative Los Alamos Lab Contract Have Checkered Safety Records,” ProPublica, May 8, 2018).
Second, in addition to its problematic university partnership in managing Los Alamos, Bechtel, as one of the largest engineering and construction companies in the world, has been criticized for quality of contracted work done in Iraq, Eastern Europe, and Bolivia, including poor planning and inadequate construction. (See Matthew Brunwasser, “Steamrolled.” Foreign Policy, http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/01/30/steamrolled-investigation-bechtel-highway-business-kosovo/
Third, there are broader policy questions about the managerial control of the largest nuclear laboratory in the United States. For example, should corporations and universities with financial interests in particular research projects be given the authority to manage and determine the work of the laboratory?
Fourth, two distinguished Purdue alums have served in executive positions with the Bechtel Corporation and maintain close ties to their alma mater. Do these connections raise questions about the Purdue collaboration?
Fifth, research on nuclear weapons and energy policy deserve intense public discussion. The Obama and Trump administrations have committed to the development of a new round of nuclear weapons. The commitments violate promises to denuclearize the world made at the time of the collapse of the former Soviet Union. And US government campaigns to restrict the possibility of nuclear development in North Korea and Iran contradict this US policy of building new weapons.
Sixth, prioritizing nuclear energy in a post-carbon energy world is controversial. What are the nuclear energy projects of the Los Alamos Laboratory? Are there alternatives being researched at universities such as Purdue University?
Seventh, the United States is the only country that has used atomic bombs in human history. The decisions to drop the bombs, and to maintain upgraded weapons of much greater magnitude, raise ethical questions about their continued research and development.
In the end, the university is a space for public discourse on ethics, public policy, research and teaching programs. As a public university, engagement with civil society is appropriate. The issues raised about the Los Alamos National Laboratory, collaboration with any corporate partner, and the use of university resources are complicated and require transparency and much public discussion. Purdue University, with its strong programs in Engineering, Science, and the Liberal Arts, is particularly equipped to engage in public discourse which could lead to more effective university policies. And, as Nancy MacLean warns, circumventing public discussion weakens democracy.