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Los Alamos Job Opened to Bidding

U.S. plans a competition to run the nuclear lab, which has been operated exclusively by the UC system. 'Management failures' are cited.

May 01, 2003|Rebecca Trounson and Peter Y. Hong | Times Staff Writers

Citing "systemic management failures" by the University of California, the U.S. Energy Department announced Wednesday that it will for the first time hold an open competition for the contract to run Los Alamos National Laboratory when the university's current deal expires in 2005.

But Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham said he has decided not to break UC's contract immediately, because it could cause significant disruption at the nation's premier nuclear weapons design center. Also, he said the university has taken "vigorous action" since December to correct its management and business failings.

The decision follows months of allegations and revelations of theft, fraud, security lapses and lax oversight at the New Mexico laboratory, which UC has managed -- without competition -- since the dawn of the nuclear age.

And it left some experts wondering if there were many other institutions able and willing -- whether alone or jointly -- to offer themselves as alternatives to run the sprawling lab.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday June 01, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 59 words Type of Material: Correction
Los Alamos -- An article in Section A on May 1 about the U.S. Energy Department's decision to hold an open competition for the contract to run Los Alamos National Laboratory incorrectly reported Rep. Ellen O. Tauscher's city of residence. She is a Democrat from Walnut Creek, not Pleasanton. Tauscher's hometown was incorrectly reported in earlier stories as well.

"On the up side for a university, there is prestige and an intellectual broadening of the faculty and student body," said Charles Herzfeld, a defense consultant and former chairman of the Pentagon's nuclear weapons council. "The downside is: It is a lot of trouble with a huge amount of paperwork."

UC President Richard Atkinson, while disappointed, said in a statement Wednesday that he appreciated Abraham's decision not to sever the current contract and that he wants the university to compete for the next one.

But Atkinson, who will step down as president of the public university system this fall, said he questions whether the university should enter a competitive bidding process for the lab it has managed exclusively for the government since 1943.

"We believe, with every fiber of our institutional being, that continued UC management is in the absolute best interests of the nation's security," he said. "However, there is another question at stake -- and that is whether the university should compete. The answer to that is less clear."

He and other UC officials said that the decision ultimately will be up to the UC regents but that they are concerned about the potential costs -- estimated at millions of dollars -- and expertise needed to compete for the contract.

Atkinson was en route Wednesday to Washington, where he is scheduled to testify today at a congressional hearing on Los Alamos. He could not be reached for further comment.

Abraham's decision follows a series of embarrassing revelations about lax business practices, credit card abuse and equipment theft at Los Alamos. The problems flared into public view last fall after two investigators, Glenn Walp and Steven Doran, who had been hired by the lab to look into the allegations, were fired and went public with claims that the dismissals were part of a cover-up.

Since then, in one report after another, Los Alamos and the university have been criticized for an employee purchasing scheme resulting in theft of $300,000, a failure to account for $1.3-million worth of equipment, from computers to a forklift, and the mishandling of plutonium, among other issues.

The lab's reputation had been sullied earlier by other lapses, including the indictment in 1999 of scientist Wen Ho Lee on a security violation and the mysterious disappearance the next year of two classified computer hard drives. The drives later turned up behind a copy machine. Lee, who was accused of leaking nuclear secrets to China, pleaded guilty to a count of mishandling nuclear data.

But the report also said that the National Nuclear Security Administration, which oversees the lab for the Energy Department, bore some responsibility.

"There is no question that we should have detected these problems, the systemic issues, sooner," a senior department official said Wednesday, on condition of anonymity. "Clearly, we need to improve."

Rep. Ellen O. Tauscher (D-Pleasanton) agreed, citing an Energy Department report in December that gave UC excellent marks for running the laboratory at the same time the agency was launching investigations. "Obviously, there was an atmosphere at the Department of Energy and [National Nuclear Security Administration] that was incompetent and that did not protect the interests of the American people," Tauscher said Wednesday.

Abraham's decision was welcomed by Walp and Doran, the former security officers whose charges of wrongdoing helped trigger the investigation. The men, who have been rehired by the university, said they were proud of their role. "I commend the secretary on his courage in making this decision, and I'm just elated," Walp said.

Leaders of the congressional panels probing the lab's problems also expressed satisfaction.

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