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U.S. Will Split Bidding to Operate 2 Nuclear Labs

Energy officials say they want to broaden the competitions by separating the processes at the UC-managed weapons facilities.

June 10, 2004|Rebecca Trounson | Times Staff Writer

The U.S. Energy Department said Wednesday that it would hold separate competitions for the contracts to manage the nation's two nuclear weapons design labs, both now run by the University of California.

At the same time, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham said UC's contract to manage one of the facilities, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, would be extended at least two years beyond its current expiration date in September 2005.

Department officials said the extension would allow separate contract bidding for the management of Livermore, near Oakland, and its sister facility, the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

The Los Alamos contract is also due to expire in September 2005, but the UC contract for that is not being extended. The timetable and specifics for its contract bidding are expected to be released this year.

Last year, after much-publicized management lapses at Los Alamos, the Energy Department said it would require UC for the first time to compete for the contract to run that lab. The university has administered Los Alamos for more than six decades. Congress later ordered that other national lab contracts, including Livermore's, also be put up for bid.

"I have concluded that it is very important to ensure we have the broadest possible competition for future contracts," Abraham said in a statement Wednesday. "Separating these two competitions will achieve that result."

UC and Livermore officials responded cautiously to Abraham's announcement. University spokesmen said UC had not yet decided whether to compete for either contract but was preparing as if it would.

The announcement will not affect those preparations, said S. Robert Foley, UC's vice president for laboratory management.

Michael Anastasio, director of Livermore, said through a spokeswoman that the lab supported the decisions, both to extend the Livermore contract and to hold separate competitions for the two facilities.

But scientists at both labs have voiced concern in the past about the possibility of separate contractors for the facilities, saying UC's management of both has fostered cooperation -- and occasional rivalry -- that has benefited the nation.

Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-Alamo), whose district includes the Livermore lab, said she considered the decision to extend that contract an endorsement of recent management changes by UC and Livermore officials. Separate bid processes also will allow the university to compete more effectively, she said.

The Energy Department already has congressional approval to lengthen the Livermore contract by two years but will seek an extension of 18 months beyond that, said Anson Franklin, a spokesman for the National Nuclear Security Administration, which is part of the department.

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