The University of Texas officially signaled its interest Wednesday in pursuing the contract to manage the Los Alamos National Laboratory, a nuclear weapons design facility that has been run by the University of California for more than six decades without challenge.
The Texas university's governing board authorized Chancellor Mark G. Yudof to explore a potential bid on the Los Alamos contract and to spend as much as $500,000 on the effort. Meeting in Brownsville, Texas, the regents said the money would be used, in part, to pay consultants and seek possible industrial or academic partners for its bid.
The University of California has managed Los Alamos and its sister nuclear design facility, Lawrence Livermore, for the U.S. Department of Energy on a no-bid contract that has been renewed regularly. The university also runs the Lawrence Berkeley lab, an energy research center near the UC Berkeley campus, for the Energy Department
But in April, after a series of management failures and security lapses at Los Alamos, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham said he would require UC, for the first time, to compete for the right to run the New Mexico lab when the contract expires in September 2005. Congress later ordered the two other UC-run labs, as well as other national labs that have been managed on a no-bid basis, to have competitive bidding as well.
The decisions -- especially on Los Alamos, the birthplace of the nation's nuclear weapons -- were seen as blows to UC.
UC regents this month took preliminary steps to allow the university to compete for the various contracts, but officials say they have not yet decided whether to do so. They, like University of Texas officials, say much will depend on specifics of the contracts, which are not yet known.
UC spokesman Chris Harrington said officials there were not surprised by the Texas decision.
"We continue to believe that UC management of the national labs is in the nation's best interest and the university is preparing as if we will compete, should the regents decide to do so," he said.
The University of Texas has frequently been cited by UC officials and others as a potential rival for the Los Alamos contract, both because of its political ties to the Bush administration and because it often has expressed interest in running a national lab.
Others mentioned as potential bidders include such defense contractors as Lockheed Martin Corp. A spokeswoman of that firm did not return a phone call for comment Wednesday.
The Texas school spent nearly $800,000 in recent years to explore a possible bid on Sandia, the national nuclear research lab in Albuquerque. It lost, however, when the Energy Department, without an open bid process, decided to extend the Sandia contract held by Lockheed Martin.
Energy Department spokesman Joe Davis said the department welcomes the potential Los Alamos bid from the University of Texas and others. "The more the merrier," he said.
After Wednesday's vote, Yudof said the university had been encouraged in its decision by Texas Gov. Rick Perry and other political leaders. "We see this as an opportunity for service to the state, to our country and its national security," he said. "We also see this as a significant step for the University of Texas."
But asked about the university's perceived clout in Washington, another official, former University of Texas Chancellor Dan Burck, downplayed the idea. "We have a lot of influential people in Washington that we know but ... I'm not sure that would play a role in the competitive part of this," Burck said. "We haven't had discussions with any of them."
Rep. Ellen O. Tauscher (D-Alamo), a frequent advocate for UC's continued management of the labs, said she looked forward to the competition. "Bring it on," she said.