A&M backs off interest in Los Alamos nuclear lab

By: BRETT NAUMAN, Staff Writer
The Bryan-College Station Eagle
September 1, 2004

The Texas A&M University System has cooled its interest in managing the Los Alamos National Laboratory after defense contractor Lockheed Martin Corp. abandoned its proposal to run the facility, a system official said Tuesday.

Lockheed Martin’s exit from the competition signals that managing the troubled laboratory could prove challenging, said Lee Peddicord, vice chancellor for research and federal relations for the A&M System.

The corporation and the system separately had expressed interest earlier this year in securing a U.S. Department of Energy contract to operate Los Alamos, the nation’s largest nuclear laboratory. But the defense giant announced recently it would not compete for the contract because managing the facility would require too much time and resources, Peddicord said.

"It’s a clear message that one needs to think carefully about this," he said. "I wouldn’t say we’ve lost interest, but it has made us more deliberate in our approach."

The University of Texas System, at one point a potential partner with the A&M System in managing Los Alamos, also has bowed out of the competition. But Lockheed Martin’s announcement had more influence on the A&M System’s decision to cool its interest, Peddicord said.

The University of California has managed Los Alamos since World War II. The laboratory was established to develop the first atomic bomb during the Manhattan Project.

But the current management group has come under fire during recent months because of security problems, including the loss of several computer discs with top-secret data.

The problems prompted the Department of Energy to open the laboratory’s management to other bidders. Corporations and universities have expressed interest in the $2.2 billion annual contract.

Requests for management proposals soon will be sent to companies and universities that have expressed interest, Peddicord said. The A&M System will scrutinize the proposal before it decides whether to bid, he said.

A&M most likely would enter into a partnership with corporations if it were to make a bid on Los Alamos, Peddicord said. The system had no such partnership with Lockheed Martin, he said, although the two entities do have other ties and the corporation is a major employer of Texas A&M graduates.

Lockheed Martin officials have spoken indirectly with A&M System officials and have made it clear that managing the facility would require too much time and resources from the defense corporation, Peddicord said.

"Some of the problems at Los Alamos seem to be systematic," Peddicord said, adding that they would require a "culture of change" to fix. "How do you change them without losing the quality of science?"

While the A&M System’s plans for Los Alamos are undetermined, the system will continue with its bid to operate the new Idaho National Laboratory, Peddicord said.

System representatives met with federal officials last month, he said, and presented their case to run the Idaho lab, which is expected to develop the next generation of nuclear reactors.

"It was a 4 1/2-hour presentation on our proposal," Peddicord said. "We were very pleased. We came away from that feeling positive of how it was perceived."

Brett Nauman’s e-mail address is bnauman@theeagle.com.