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California and the West

UC to Keep Running Nuclear Arms Labs

Weapons: U.S. will extend contract, but a new official will manage facilities and security duties will be subcontracted.


WASHINGTON — The Energy Department announced Tuesday that it intends to extend its contract with the University of California to manage the nation's two largest nuclear weapons labs, despite a series of embarrassing security lapses involving classified computer data.

UC and Energy Department officials are negotiating the terms of a new contract that would extend the current pact by three years, through September 2005, and would be awarded without competitive bidding. UC would hire a subcontractor to carry out security functions at the Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore laboratories. The university would also hire a new vice president to oversee lab management, including security measures.

"We decided, since the fundamental science was not broken and was sound, it was important to continue on with the university," said Madelyn Creedon, deputy administrator for defense programs in the department's National Nuclear Security Administration.

Creedon said the ongoing negotiations will focus on ways to improve operations, security and project management at the labs. Neither the subcontractor nor the new vice president have been chosen yet, she said.

"Until they come in and identify solutions to put in place on the ground, you don't know how dramatically [lab management] will change. But it will change," she said.

The decision to extend the contract was the result of meetings with the university, the labs, the local communities and outside constituents, including members of Congress, Creedon said.

"It was a fairly lengthy and fairly excruciating process," she said. "For reasons of continuity we decided to continue with the university. The university has to be responsible for the operations of these facilities. That includes safety, security, science and environmental management."

The decision to negotiate a new contract is likely to be welcomed at the labs, where scientists have warned that they would leave in droves if the university was removed from management.

In a statement, UC President Richard C. Atkinson called the decision "a vote of confidence in a relationship that has brought great benefits to our nation for more than half a century."

But outside critics have argued that the university had a hands-off policy that allowed security lapses to proliferate with little accountability.

"University of California oversight is just not working. It seems like you are giving them a reward for messing up," said Chris Mechels, a former Los Alamos employee who is now active in employee rights and worker safety issues there.

Mechels said that the decision was "unfortunately predictable" and that the contract should have been put out to bid.

Management of the weapons labs came under fierce congressional scrutiny and criticism during the last 18 months after the Los Alamos facility was hit by two successive scandals involving potential losses of classified nuclear arms data.

In the first case, weapons scientist Wen Ho Lee was fired from Los Alamos in March 1999 amid a massive FBI investigation into alleged espionage. He was arrested and charged last December with 59 unrelated counts of misappropriating weapons designs and other secret data.

Prosecutors eventually dropped all but one of the charges, mishandling nuclear data, and Lee was freed Sept. 13 after pleading guilty to one count of the indictment.

In June, the lab came under fire again after the disclosure that two computer hard drives, loaded with highly classified nuclear weapons data, had disappeared from a secure vault in the lab's X Division.

The missing hard drives were later recovered behind a photocopy machine near the vault, but the FBI and a grand jury are investigating the incident.

The current Energy Department contract with the university provides $2.75 billion a year in salaries, operating costs and bonuses. The additional cost for hiring a subcontractor and new vice president have not yet been determined.

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