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DOE Picks University of California to Head Los Alamos Management Team

The Department of Energy announced in December its decision to award the contract to manage Los Alamos National Laboratory to Los Alamos National Security, LLC. (LANS), a partnership led by the University of California, partnered with Bechtel Corporation, a huge engineering, construction and project management company.

The University of California has run Los Alamos National Lab since the lab was created in 1943. But a series of safety, security, and financial problems in the past two years cast doubt on the university’s ability to manage the lab, and the DOE decided to put the contract out for a competitive bid.

Some at Los Alamos believe the problems have been blown out of proportion, and the contract didn’t need to be rebid. Other major labs have similar levels of safety and security, said Brad Holian, a Los Alamos physicist. “It’s not that Los Alamos is singularly bad. It seems to me is it was a drive to privatize. I think it’s a very bad idea.”

The LANS partnership that will take over the management of the lab includes the University of California, Bechtel Corporation, BWX Technologies, and Washington Group International. They were competing for the contract against a team led by Lockheed Martin and the University of Texas.

“Both proposals were strong and of exceptionally high caliber,” said Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman at a press conference in December announcing the decision to award the contract to the UC/Bechtel team.

Bodman stressed that the new contract would not be a continuation of the previous contract. “This is a new contract, with a new team, marking a new approach to management at Los Alamos.” That new approach includes a new attitude towards monetary compensation.

The new contract, which begins June 1, has an initial term of seven years, with a provision to extend it to 20 years. Under the new contract, the LANS team will receive up to $79 million per year, depending on performance. Previously, the University of California had received about $9 million per year to manage the lab.

The new contract “begins a new era for Los Alamos,” University of California President Robert Dynes said in a statement after the announcement. “I believe this was an excellent decision and one that is right for both Los Alamos and the country.”

Details on how operations at the lab will change under the new management have not been announced.

“This new contract will put in place concrete measures of accountability, ensuring that the tax dollars spent at Los Alamos are well spent,” said Bodman.

Many Los Alamos employees were generally pleased that UC won the contract, though not overly optimistic, said Holian. Morale has been extremely low at LANL recently, he said.

Rhon Keinig, who retired recently after 25 years at Los Alamos said, “The people in upper management were totally incompetent. I thought people were really destroying the science base of the laboratory.”

The new director at Los Alamos will be Michael Anastasio, who is the current director of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. “I’ve heard good things about the new director,” said Holian. “People seem to like him at Livermore.”

Lawrence Livermore Lab will seek a new director. Livermore is currently managed by the University of California, but the contract expires in 2007, and the DOE is planning to put that management contract out to a competitive bid.

There has been a lot of anxiety at Los Alamos recently about the new contractor. Los Alamos employees are waiting for more detailed information on how the new management will operate, what changes will be made, and how new pension and benefits plans will work. Holian says he does not expect very significant changes in the way the lab is run, and he hopes that the next couple of years will be relatively quiet at the lab, with no major upheavals. Keinig said he expects there will be some chaos while restructuring takes place.

Some Los Alamos scientists worry that emphasis at the lab may now shift away from science, towards weapons engineering and manufacturing. “I believe there will be increasing emphasis on plutonium pit manufacturing rather than scientific things,” said Holian. He and Keinig both said they believe good science will continue to be done in some divisions of the lab.

The lab could perform very necessary science if it focuses more on energy problems, said Holian. “We are an energy lab. It might be time to focus on energy problems,” he said. “The lab can do a great deal of service to the country.”

“Nuclear weapons is not a growth industry. (At least I hope not),” said Keinig. “I hope they find a better balance in the programmatic work. Without the nuclear program, Los Alamos would not exist. But that doesn’t mean that that should define the lab. A better balance between weapons work, pure science, and threat reduction needs to be emplaced at LANL for it to again become a true national treasure.”

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette
Staff Writer: Ernie Tretkoff