Physicist’s Widow Asks That Husband’s Name Be Removed From Weapons Lab

Times Education Writer

The widow of Berkeley physicist Ernest O. Lawrence appealed to the University of California Board of Regents Friday to remove her late husband’s name from the Livermore weapons lab which, she said, “has become a large, dangerously influential, self-perpetuating part of the military-industrial complex.”

Mary K. Lawrence and other speakers representing a variety of peace groups urged the regents during a public hearing to sever their ties with the nation’s two nuclear weapons research facilities: the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory near Oakland and the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

Orderly Proceedings

In contrast to the hearings last spring on UC stock holdings in companies with ties to South Africa, Friday’s meeting was quiet and orderly. There were no demonstrators in sight.


On Sept. 20, the regents must decide whether they will seek a five-year renewal of the university’s contract to run the weapons labs, a relationship that dates to the building of the first atomic bomb in World War II.

As several speakers noted, that era saw a “clear national consensus” in favor of building better weapons to end the war. By contrast, they said, the nation is divided today on whether weapons research and testing improves the nation’s security.

Witnesses also were divided on what course scientists such as Lawrence would recommend today.

“He had very strong feelings about national defense,” said Wallace Decker, a Livermore official who worked under Lawrence during the building of the first atomic and hydrogen bombs.

Established in 1952

In 1952, it was Lawrence, along with his Berkeley colleague Edward Teller, who established a nuclear weapons research center at Livermore as a branch of the facility at Berkeley. When Lawrence died in 1958, the two labs were still operated as one facility and were given his name.

“People who knew him a lot better than I say Ernest would be proud to be associated with the Livermore lab,” Decker said after the hearing.

His wife disagreed. “If he were alive today, I think he would deeply regret what the Livermore lab has become,” she said.

He worked on the creation of the first hydrogen bomb in the early 1950s, she said, “because he knew the Russians were getting close.” But he would be “absolutely appalled,” with the spiraling arms race in the decades since then, she said.

Even if the regents seek to continue their management of the labs, Mrs. Lawrence urged them to add to the contract “a non-negotiable condition that Lawrence’s name should be dropped from the Livermore facility.”

Point of Confusion

This would also help dispel confusion about the Lawrence Berkeley lab on the campus, which is no longer involved in weapons work, she added.

Lawrence has made previous appeals to have her husband’s name removed from the lab. In 1982 she wrote to university officials with a similar request but no action was taken. At the time one university official referred to the question as a “difficult moral issue.”

The hearing also featured testimony from another Berkeley scientist who worked on the Manhattan project. Glenn Seaborg, a Nobel Prize winner in chemistry, urged the regents to maintain their tie to the weapons lab because it is “essential to maintaining their scientific excellence.”

Support for Arms Control

Seaborg said he and other scientists who worked on the first atomic bomb have consistently supported treaties to limit nuclear testing. But he added, “nuclear weaponry is a dynamic field . . . and we can’t run the risk of being overtaken by a technical surprise,” he said.

Although other organizations--private corporations or the government itself--could take over the management of the labs, “you don’t in general see the development of new ideas and innovations happening in most industrial and military settings,” he said.

The regents announced that they will hold another public hearing at UCLA on Sept. 19 on the labs issue the day before they vote on the contract extension.