Nuclear Bowl: Cal vs. Texas
By Noah Shachtman
February 04, 2004
Story location: http://www.wired.com/news/politics/0,1283,62165,00.html
Two of the country's biggest universities are headed for a multibillion dollar showdown over who runs the nation's most important nuclear lab.
The University of Texas' board of regents voted unanimously Wednesday to begin preparing a potential bid to operate the troubled Los Alamos National Laboratory, the birthplace of the atomic bomb. The University of California has been running the lab since its inception more than 60 years ago. But after waves of scandals forced the ouster of most of Los Alamos' senior staff, the Energy Department announced that it would put the lab's $3 billion-per-year management contract up for bid for the first time, when it expires next year.
Several corporate and academic institutions are expected to go after the Los Alamos contract in the upcoming year. By committing $500,000 to start work on a bid, the University of Texas is the first major player to formally announce its intentions.
UT officials say they won't decide on whether to place a full-blown bid until after they see the Energy Department's request for proposal on Los Alamos. But already, controversy is swirling around UT's decision. Some Los Alamos employees are questioning whether UT has the science expertise needed to run one of the world's premiere research centers.
Lab watchdogs, on the other hand, are worried that the school might be a little too cozy with the Republican establishment in Washington, D.C., and could be particularly pliant regarding President Bush's push for new nuclear weapons. After all, critics note, Texas is the home state of the president, and of Rep. Tom DeLay, the House majority leader.
"Management at Los Alamos needed a radical shaking-up, not moving the monkeys around the same old tree," said Jay Coghlan, executive director of Nuclear Watch of New Mexico. In recent years, the lab has suffered through spy scandals, security lapses, environmental fights and recurring fraud. And Coghlan blames the University of California, in part, for many of these problems.
But he's concerned about UT, nonetheless.
"If it were to win the bid, I'd expect UT would follow in lockstep behind Bush's nuclear weapons programs," Coghlan said.
In its funding requests for next year, the Bush administration "submitted a nuclear weapons budget equaling the all-time high under Reagan's spectacular buildup," Coghlan noted. Funding for a nuclear "bunker buster" weapon is up almost threefold in the fiscal 2005 budget, introduced Monday. Research into low-yield "mini nukes" increased by more than half.
For more than a year, California congressional legislators and others have hinted that UT might have an inside track on the Los Alamos contract because of its Washington ties. And in a conference call with reporters, UT Chancellor Mark Yudof said the school was "encouraged by the political leadership in Texas" and "U.S. senators" to "undertake this effort."
But Dan Burck, who's heading a task force that will advise Yudof on the bid, backtracked from the chancellor's comments. "We have, I guess, a number of influential friends in Washington. But we've had no conversations with them" about the Los Alamos bid, Burck said.
UT officials didn't spell out how they might do a better job than UC at running Los Alamos. But the school's leadership has long been interested in getting into the business of running the Energy Department's national labs.
"It enhances our reputation and visibility nationwide," Yudof explained. And there are ample opportunities to license the research done at the labs to private firms, for a share of the proceeds.
"The payoff to Texas would be enormous if we're successful," he added.
In 2001 and 2002, the school attempted to gain control of Sandia National Laboratories, located near Los Alamos in Albuquerque, New Mexico. But the Energy Department decided to automatically renew the contract of Lockheed Martin, Sandia's current operator.
Many Los Alamos employees hoped that the Energy Department would keep the Los Alamos contract intact, too. They're worried about their health and retirement benefits -- provided by UC, not the government. And they see UT as a second-rate academic institution.
"It's not considered to be anywhere near the class of UC," said Mark Dunham, a Los Alamos senior project leader who's circulated petitions in support of the lab's current management. "So you're substituting a less qualified university for a more qualified one."
Los Alamos may not be the only national lab contract UT pursues in the upcoming year. The contracts at the Ames, Argonne, Lawrence Berkeley and Lawrence Livermore labs are all set to expire in the next 18 months. "We're looking at any lab that comes up for bid," Burck said.
Going after the Los Alamos contract will be expensive. Submitting a formal bid will cost nearly $6 million. UT officials indicated they are looking at potential partners in industry and academia who may want to share those costs and divvy up the management responsibilities. The Energy Department also may subsidize some bids to encourage competition for the Los Alamos contract.