UT System's interest in Los Alamos cooling

Furor over missing computer disks prompts careful review of options

By Ralph K.M. Haurwitz, Staff
Austin American-Statesman
Wednesday, August 11, 2004

HOUSTON — The University of Texas System's passion for getting into the nuclear weapons business seems to be cooling.

System officials have been working for many months toward a possible bid to operate Los Alamos National Laboratory, the nuclear weapons lab in New Mexico. But a furor erupted a few weeks ago in Congress concerning the disappearance of two computer disks containing classified lab information. And last week, a potential industrial partner for the UT System, Lockheed Martin Corp., announced that it would not compete for the contract, apparently because the defense giant was unwilling to invest the energy and money needed to run the lab.

Now, UT System officials are wondering whether the contract would be more trouble than it's worth. On the one hand, the system could be seen as having made a huge contribution to national security if it were able to institute an era of crisp efficiency at the lab, which has also suffered through scandals involving worker safety and money management. On the other hand, failure to straighten things out could expose the UT System to congressional wrath.

"The management and cultural issues are very difficult there," said UT System Chancellor Mark Yudof, who is in Houston today for a regents' meeting. "We're looking at it very carefully. There are obvious pluses with such a distinguished lab, but there are also risks.

"One of the things that's changed is that the furor in Congress and at the Department of Energy seems at a higher level. The other thing is that the University of California has been instituting a number of changes, but the culture seems highly resistant to it."