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Houston Chronicle

UT to pursue Los Alamos bid after slim regent approval
Regents approve bidding for famed national laboratory

By Lindsay Ellis - November 27, 2017

LANL aerial photo

FILE - This undated file aerial photo shows the Los Alamos National laboratory in Los Alamos, N.M. A federal nuclear safety panel says Los Alamos National Laboratory has come up short during drills intended to show how the northern New Mexico lab would respond to potential emergencies such as radioactive leaks or earthquakes. A letter sent in October 2017 by the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board to U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry says the board has found numerous weaknesses. Federal officials say steps are being taken to improve emergency preparedness at the lab. (The Albuquerque Journal via AP, File)

The University of Texas System will vie to manage Los Alamos National Laboratory after its divided board narrowly voted to put forward a bid on Monday.

Four regents supported submitting a proposal to manage the high-profile national security institute, whose research arms also include supercomputing, renewable energy and space exploration. Los Alamos has a multibillion-dollar budget and works with entities including the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security.

Approving regents cited what they said is the UT System's ability to change a culture at Los Alamos, long plagued with safety and security challenges, and potential research possibilities.

"No big, bold move is without risk," Regent Paul Foster said.

The system has a business partner willing to work with it to manage the facility, regents said. But administrators declined to identify that corporate partner.

The discussion and vote Monday drew out concerns from three regents who have expressed frustration with UT System spending.

They said big system initiatives, which this would be, come at the expense of academic institutions.

"It's going to distract us from our core mission," said Regent Janiece Longoria, who joined the board earlier this year. "I believe Los Alamos is and will continue to be problematic from a nuclear safety standpoint."

Numerous challenges

Challenges at Los Alamos stem from its remote location in New Mexico, its mission, corporate influence and culture of secrecy, observers say. On the 39-square-mile campus are high explosives and plutonium, global security operations with nonproliferation and counter-proliferation divisions, and ongoing technology and engineering research.

The University of California managed the facility after World War II, and has continued to do so since the mid-2000s in collaboration with business interests in a private limited liability company called Los Alamos National Security.

Even after several safety and security scandals, including reports of missing property, fraud and safety issues, LANS beat out UT for the contract in 2005.

University of California officials insisted earlier this month that the university is well positioned to earn the bid again. The current contract ends in September 2018. Bids are due in mid-December.

Greg Mello, who directs the Los Alamos Study Group which monitors nuclear laboratories and favors nuclear disarmament, said he was not surprised regents would acknowledge the risk before a vote.

"People would have to have their heads in the sand to not realize that this is a troubled laboratory," Mello said.

Bid raises concerns

UT Deputy Chancellor David Daniel, who is heading the UT System's bid effort, called regents' deliberations "thoughtful" and said the system has weighed the risks.

He said he has grown "more confident" as he has learned what UT can do "to improve the safety record at Los Alamos."

The three dissenting regents - Longoria, Kevin Eltife and Steve Hicks - explained their positions by citing safety concerns and potential reputational and economic risks. Regents already voted this fall to spend $4.5 million on developing a bid for Los Alamos.

Eltife and Longoria both said the University of Texas at Austin has concerns about the bid, but a spokesman for the state's flagship declined to comment after the vote.

The regents' divide highlighted what has become a familiar split on the board this year. Regents disagree on the role of the system and whether it needs to pare back spending.

Forty entities have officially expressed interest in managing Los Alamos, including IBM Global Business Services. Texas A&M University's regents are also considering a bid.


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