UT plans to make interest in Los Alamos lab formal

Meanwhile, A&M developing proposal for Idaho national lab

Ralph K.M. Haurwitz, Staff
The Austin American Statesman
June 30, 2004 Wednesday

The University of Texas System is moving closer to competing for the contract to operate Los Alamos National Laboratory, which, among other research, designs and maintains nuclear weapons.

System officials said Tuesday that they plan to submit a formal "expression of interest" in operating Los Alamos to the U.S. Department of Energy, which oversees the laboratory in the mountains north of Albuquerque, N.M. The department announced Monday that interested parties should submit such a statement, including a description of their capabilities, by July 12.

Meanwhile, the Texas A&M University System is in the thick of preparing a proposal with three industrial partners to operate a national laboratory in Idaho that develops advanced commercial nuclear reactor technologies and conducts research for Navy reactors. The proposal to operate the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory, to be renamed the Idaho National Laboratory, is due July 26.

The two university systems have the same motivations, including expanded research for professors and students, prestige and a share of a management fee.

The UT System's plan does not presume that the Board of Regents, which governs the system, will ultimately decide to seek the contract to operate Los Alamos, said Michael Warden, a spokesman for the system.

Warden noted, however, that the regents essentially expressed the system's interest in February, when they voted unanimously to prepare for a possible bid, including spending up to $500,000 on planning. Charles Miller, then chairman of the regents, said at the time that the action shows "our strong intent to compete."

Los Alamos has been operated without competitive bidding by the University of California since the lab was established in 1943 as part of the Manhattan Project, which produced the first atomic bombs.

The university has been criticized in recent years for its financial management and for lapses in security at the lab.

The university is nonetheless expected to be a strong contender for continuing as the lab's operator after its current contract expires in September 2005.

UT System officials say they expect to join with one or more academic or industrial organizations in a possible bid, but they have declined to identify potential partners.

"We have been conducting discussions with potential partners," said Charles Sorber, a special engineering adviser for the UT System.

The A&M System is farther along in its effort to bid for a national lab contract, having combined forces with Honeywell International Inc., Entergy Corp. and Bechtel National Inc., which leads the team.

A&M officials have been working on the proposal in recent weeks at Bechtel's offices in San Francisco.

"We are pleased with the progress," Lee Peddicord, A&M's vice chancellor for research and federal relations, said Tuesday from San Francisco. "We're working very hard on it."

rhaurwitz@statesman.com; 445-3604