Los Alamos lab’s fate remains murky after latest gaffes

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Sept. 13, 2004 – One of small tech’s top research facilities is up for grabs, but the number of would-be takers seems to be dwindling. That may improve the odds for institutions that have been waiting in the wings for the chance to run a resource-rich operation like Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Defense giant Lockheed Martin Corp. bowed out of a race for a contract to oversee Los Alamos in August, saying the lab required “too many resources.” U.S. Sen. Wayne Allard, a Republican from Colorado, introduced legislation on July 22 calling for the Department of Energy (DOE) to end its contract with the University of California (UC) system, Los Alamos’ lifelong manager, and bar the university from bidding on future contracts.

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Even the university has voiced reservations about overseeing the lab beyond 2005 after a series of security gaffes and safety violations this summer.

“We have confidence in the scientific work,” said Gerald Parsky, chairman of the UC Board of Regents in a conference call that followed an all-staff meeting at the New Mexico lab in August. Parsky and other top university and lab executives said they used the gathering as a wakeup call for workers, saying seemingly slipshod handling for classified information compromised the lab and its future with the university.

 “But we cannot tolerate recent security and safety incidents because they have shifted the focus away,” Parsky said. “It is up to them (Los Alamos employees) to demonstrate that the culture has changed.”

Los Alamos, whose mission includes safeguarding the nation’s nuclear stockpile, has struggled for years with charges of lax oversight. In 1999, one of its physicists was arrested after being accused of downloading data on nuclear weapons for espionage.

The Department of Energy chastised the lab in 2002 after learning management had tried to cover up staffers’ misspending of funds. This summer, all classified work was stopped and 23 scientists suspended after reports of missing computer disks and work safety violations. Investigators are now exploring the possibility that the disks never existed.

“Clearly, after 60 years of managing Los Alamos for the federal government, the University of California has grown too comfortable, too arrogant, to manage this national security asset,” Allard said in a statement accompanying the bill. UC has been running the lab since its inception in 1943. The bill was referred to the Senate Committee on Armed Services.

But severing ties between UC and Los Alamos might weaken the lab scientifically, said Peter Westwick, a senior research fellow at California Institute of Technology and the author of a history of the national labs.

“One of the justifications of having a university do this was recruitment to get the scientists,” he said. “Scientists who are used to working in an academic environment see working for the government as a step down.”

UC is considered one of the nation’s academic gems. It holds the highest number of Nobel laureates and files the most patents of any university system. The Los Angeles campus topped the nation for research funding in 2001, according to a National Science Foundation analysis. San Diego, San Francisco, Berkeley and Davis all ranked within the top 20 in the survey.

If the university decided to disassociate itself from Los Alamos, it wouldn’t be without precedent, Westwick said. The University of Chicago, which oversees Argonne National Laboratory in suburban Chicago, originally managed Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, too. It was uncomfortable overseeing a facility with hazardous material and top-secret programs from afar and chose to not renew its contract.

In 2003, the DOE announced it would open the Los Alamos contract for bidding, an option the DOE can exercise every five years. In the past, the DOE had waived that option.

The contract is due to expire in September 2005. The agency added that the contract on Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, also run by the University of California, would go up for bid, too.

The DOE announced in January that it would extend the Lawrence Livermore contract beyond September 2005 to allow for separate competitions. About a week later, the University of Texas (UT) Board of Regents gave UT permission to seek the contract for Los Alamos, which UT Chancellor Mark Yudof called “a resource without peer internationally.”

The chance to serve the nation as well as the prestige and access to state-of-the-art facilities make the opportunity to run a national lab attractive to research universities and corporations, Westwick said. But balancing a nuclear labs’ occasional need for secrecy with scientists’ demands for autonomy can be difficult for any contractor.

“Oversight is going to be there,” he said. “They’ll have to get the scientists to accede to it.”

UC, UT, Texas A&M University, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman all filed paperwork in July outlining their capabilities, a requirement for being considered for the competition. The most recent security incident came to light in early July and made headlines throughout the month.

Lockheed Martin spokeswoman Wendy Owen said the corporation decided to withdraw from the group and instead concentrate on Los Alamos’ neighbor, Sandia National Laboratories, which it oversees. “We took a look at what it would take to manage the resources and decided against it,” Owen said.

In the meantime, UC and other potential competitors are awaiting the release of a Request for Proposal, the government’s official bidding document. The National Nuclear Security Administration, a branch of the DOE that handles all nuclear energy programs, has tentatively scheduled its release for late fall.

The proposal will spell out qualification requirements and regulations. It’s feasible that UC might not qualify, or Allard’s efforts to ban it from the process might succeed.

“We have to see if there are things out there that preclude our ability (to bid),” said S. Robert Foley, UC’s vice president for laboratory management.


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