Los Alamos honey pot not so sweet anymore, UT officials say

The Associated Press State & Local Wire
August 12, 2004

AUSTIN: The University of Texas System appears to be cooling off a potential bid to take over operations at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, the nuclear weapons lab in New Mexico.

James Huffines, chairman of the UT Board of Regents, and Chancellor Mark Yudoff say it is unlikely the UT System would either go alone with a bid or even be the lead partner in a joint bid with another institution or industrial partner.

"We'd want to be part of a collaboration if we did it at all, but not the lead when you look at the types of concerns that are out there," Yudoff told the Austin American-Statesman in Thursday's editions.

They said the evolving model for operating the national lab seems to be a team of corporate and academic partners.

Lockheed Martin Corp., a potential project partner with UT, recently announced 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.

The University of California has operated the Los Alamos lab since the lab was established as part of the World War II project to build the first atomic bomb.

Federal officials decided to put the contract up for bid after recent scandals about security problems at the site.

University of Texas System officials have informed the U.S. Department of Energy they are interested in the project and may bid to manage it. The contract could be awarded in June 2005.

Texas officials have not made a final decision and the subject is not on the agenda of this week's regents meeting in Houston.

Texas officials must decide if the project is worth it.

The system could be credited with contributing to national security if it could make the lab more secure and efficient. Failure and potential problems would likely open the university to harsh criticism from Congress.

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

He said system officials are willing to explore a collaboration with the Texas A&M University System. Both systems have filed a formal "expression of interest" in operating the lab.

Yudoff said he has contacted Texas A&M system leaders but that no formal, high-level discussions have taken place.

Several members of the Texas congressional delegation have urged UT system officials to pursue the Los Alamos contract, which has never before been open to competition.

Anti-nuclear and peace activists have urged UT to stay away from the lab, the birthplace of the atomic bomb.