By Rick Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 22, 2005
The Energy Department announced yesterday it had selected the University of California and Bechtel National Inc. to manage the legendary but strife-ridden Los Alamos National Laboratory.
The decision caps a five-month review that pitted the university, which has run the lab for 63 years, against a consortium led by the University of Texas and Lockheed Martin. It was the first time the nuclear lab's management contract had been opened to competition -- a move spurred by an angry Congress after a series of security and safety lapses at the storied facility in the New Mexico desert.
Los Alamos scientists built the first atomic bomb and today oversee the security and reliability of the nation's nuclear arsenal. Although the technical expertise of its scientists and engineers is widely renowned, the lab made major missteps in recent years, ranging from industrial accidents to failures to keep track of sensitive data.
Acknowledging fears that the lab might lose some of the academic aura that has kept scientists happy there, but recognizing the need to remake itself, the University of California opted to bid with Bechtel, which will oversee business operations and security.
The two institutions, along with BWX Technologies Inc. and Washington Group International Inc. formed "Los Alamos National Security," a limited liability corporation that will hold the new contract, launching an unprecedented experiment in which profitability will for the first time factor into decision making at the lab.
The win is a relief for Los Alamos's 8,000 University of California employees, who feared losing job security and pensions under new management. It also offers the Energy Department a relatively seamless transition.
"I look forward to a new era of invaluable, cutting-edge science at Los Alamos," Energy Secretary Samuel W. Bodman said.
But not everyone is happy.
"What does it take for UC to suffer the consequences of screwing up?" asked Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, a watchdog group. "Lockheed wasn't a great alternative, but it is hard to see how UC could possibly have been given a vote of confidence. We expect a continuation of the era of chaos at Los Alamos."
At least one member of Congress -- from the state whose university lost -- also expressed ire.
"I have minimal hope and no belief that UC can reverse its record of consistent failure," wrote House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton (R-Tex.), in a letter to Bodman yesterday. "I ask that the Department provide a detailed briefing regarding this action, as well as the decision documents developed by the procurement panel that provide the basis for the new contract award no later than Friday, January 6, 2006."
The seven-year contract, worth up to $80 million a year, takes effect in June and could be extended for up to 13 more years if performance milestones are achieved.
Los Alamos's sister facility, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, Calif., also now under the University of California's management, may be next. Several in Congress have said they want to see the school compete to keep that job, and some have talked of closing it entirely and consolidating its functions at Los Alamos and other parts of the nation's nuclear laboratory network.