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UC Should Bid on Los Alamos Contract, Regents Told

An advisory panel says the university should keep running the New Mexico nuclear site, plus California's Lawrence Livermore facility.

September 23, 2004|Rebecca Trounson | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — An advisory panel on Wednesday urged the University of California's governing board to compete to keep managing the troubled Los Alamos National Laboratory, saying such a move would be in the nation's interest.

William L. Friend, a retired Bechtel Group executive who is chairman of the advisory council, said UC might need to find an industrial partner to pursue a bid to keep managing the nuclear weapons centers at Los Alamos in New Mexico and Lawrence Livermore in Northern California.

But he said he hoped the regents would decide to do so, despite a series of security and safety breaches that recently shuttered the Los Alamos facility.

"We on the council believe very strongly that the regents and administration should be proud of [UC's] performance over the years," Friend said.

The panel, appointed by UC President Robert C. Dynes to study the labs' management, also recommended that UC bid on its own to run the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, an unclassified facility housed on the UC Berkeley campus.

The regents, holding their regular meeting here, heard a variety of views on whether UC should try to hang on to its historic role as manager of Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore.

UC has held contracts to manage the two facilities for the federal government since they opened at the start of the Nuclear Age more than half a century ago.

But after a number of highly publicized problems with management and other issues at Los Alamos, the Department of Energy decided last year to put that contract up for bid when it expired in September 2005, as well as those for the other UC-run labs. The university has not yet decided whether to compete for them, and UC officials said Wednesday that a decision by the regents was still likely months away.

UC had been in discussions with Lockheed Martin to make a joint bid for the Los Alamos contract, but the company announced this summer that it would not enter the competition. S. Robert Foley, UC's vice president for lab management, said that talks were continuing with other possible partners but that no decision had been reached.

The director of the Los Alamos lab said Wednesday that he had decided to halt operations at the center in July in order to "pull back from the brink" and prevent even more serious security and safety breaches than had already occurred.

Los Alamos Director G. Peter Nanos told UC regents that his decision was prompted not only by two reported incidents that month -- the disappearance of two classified computer disks and a laser accident that injured an intern -- but also by his growing unease over a series of close calls on safety and environmental issues.

"We needed to examine all areas at the lab and look at our risk factors," Nanos said. "We were pulling ourselves back from the brink of more serious incidents."

He said most operations at Los Alamos should resume by early next month.

At Wednesday's meetings, regents also heard from faculty members in favor of and opposed to a Los Alamos bid.

William E. Kastenberg, a professor of nuclear engineering at UC Berkeley, said the university should compete for the contract, adding that UC and the laboratories it managed played an important role in the nation's security.

But Walter Kohn, a physics professor emeritus at UC Santa Barbara and Nobel laureate, said running a nuclear weapons facility was incompatible with the mission of a public research university. "It is wrong for our university to help design, develop and even manufacture nuclear weapons," Kohn said.

Those regents who spoke at Wednesday's meeting did not take a position on the issue of a bid on the Los Alamos contract, but several emphasized the importance of resolving the facility's current troubles.

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