Bidding Opens for Managing Los Alamos

The Los Alamos National Laboratory, shown in this 1995 photo, is considered the nation's premier scientific research complex.
The Los Alamos National Laboratory, shown in this 1995 photo, is considered the nation's premier scientific research complex. (Los Alamos National Laboratory Via Associated Press)
By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 20, 2005

The government released its proposal yesterday for bids to run the Los Alamos National Laboratory amid concerns among some members of Congress that new management could lead to resignations of senior scientists at what is considered the nation's premier scientific research complex.

The final proposal released by the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) offers a fixed seven-year contract with an option for an additional 13 years and the potential for making as much as $79 million yearly. That is almost 10 times the fee now received by the University of California, which has managed the facility since 1943, during the Manhattan Project.

Tyler Przybylek, chairman of the NNSA board that will evaluate the proposals, told reporters yesterday, "We think that this contract has the opportunity to be transformational in nature in that there can be improvements . . . operational efficiencies, business efficiencies, that can be brought in that can enable our scientists to do more research easier."

Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), whose state is home to Los Alamos, said he was "concerned . . . senior scientists will decide to retire and that there will be vastly different pensions for employees" than the current pensions under the university's retirement program. Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.) said the final proposal "is not everything I would have wanted," but said he was "hopeful that the end result will be right for the lab."

Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-Calif.), after noting that the proposal calls for a stand-alone pension plan for lab employees, said, "I remain concerned that altering the pension plan . . . could alarm workers throughout the complex of nuclear weapon facilities," including those at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in her district.

The decision to hold the first-ever competition to run Los Alamos stemmed in good part from security and other problems that have dogged the facility, which has a worldwide reputation for its nuclear weapons but also is home to a wide range of basic scientific research programs.

The scope of its activities listed in the proposal includes research and development "that enable safe nuclear explosive operations," helping "deter, detect and respond to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction," advancing "science, mathematics and engineering education," and performing "technology transfer and work for others, including programs to enhance national competitiveness in the global economy."

The bids are due July 19, and the contract is to be awarded by Dec. 1. Three bidders are expected to participate: Lockheed Martin, which runs the Sandia National Laboratories, will head one team, with the University of Texas as a partner; Northrop Grumman, with an academic institution, will be another; and UC, teamed with Bechtel Corp., will be the third.

"Whichever team is selected," Domenici said, "I firmly believe that [Los Alamos] will continue to be a premier laboratory for science."

Przybylek tried to reassure lab personnel, telling reporters: "The overriding concern of the board must be that we get a management and operating contract that promotes excellence in science and technology. That's the reason the lab is there."

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