A University of California Regents committee unanimously recommended Wednesday that the UC bid for the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) contract, which if won would extend the University’s nearly 60-year stewardship.
The full board of regents will make the final decision today whether to pursue the nuclear research facility’s contract, which was put up for bid by the U.S. Dept. of Energy (DOE) in 2003 following allegations of UC mismanagement. At the regents’ meeting, supporters of the bid said the UC and its recently announced partner, Bechtel National, are the best qualified to manage the facility and continue research that will improve national security. However, opponents of the bid and student protesters in the audience said they were worried, along with other concerns, that handing the UC-Bechtel partnership control of LANL would increase nuclear weapon proliferation.
The DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) announced in its final request for proposals last Thursday that competitors should submit bids ranging from $53 million to $79 million annually. Currently, the UC earns about $8.7 million every year by managing the labs, making the new contract worth about nine times its present value, said UC spokesman Chris Harrington. The contract would last for seven years, after which the NNSA may choose to renew it for an additional 13 years. All proposals are due July 19, and the winning bidder will assume control of the lab starting June 1, 2006.
Despite the potential increase in revenue, Regent David S. Lee – who does not sit on the committee that recommended the bid – said at the meeting that the UC’s bid was not financially motivated, but based on a commitment to the American people. He said the UC and Bechtel would be partially responsible for protecting the country’s citizens and resources because nuclear weapons can deter other countries from attacking.
“To me, it’s not the money,” Lee said. “It’s about being sure the best [institution] gets the job for the benefit of the country. We’re not bidding for the money … we bid so future generations don’t have to wake up to a bomb.”
UC President Robert C. Dynes also said the University was not motivated by the additional profit from the contract, because money made from managing the laboratory would be put back into the $2.1 billion yearly LANL budget to help fund new and continuing research.
However, several opponents of the bid, including two UCSB students who spoke during the public comment period, said LANL could lead to increased global violence and war by expanding its manufacturing capacity of nuclear weapons.
Protesters shouted, “We will not be silenced in the name of UC violence,” during the meeting and, “We vote no,” after the committee passed its recommendation.
Michael Anastasio, the LANL team leader, said nuclear weapons themselves are not manufactured at the laboratory, nor does it have the capacity to do so.
“None of the labs actually produce nuclear weapons,” he said. “Components [of nuclear weapons] are assembled.”
Regents also discussed the impact the new contract would have on LANL employees. Current employee pension plans are not guaranteed to remain, as they are under the new contract. However, several regents said the UC would try to mirror the plans as closely as possible for returning employees and incoming employees. A few regents also said the UC, unlike other competitors for the bid, would maintain the academic freedom of the researchers. Because of the potential shift in pension plans and managers, Robert Kuckuck, LANL interim director, said the laboratory’s employees have been working in an unstable environment.
“The lab has a very competent, extremely capable group of people down there,” Kuckuck said. “They are working under incredible uncertainty. In spite of that, they continue under a very positive attitude. My goal would be that no one retires from a laboratory because of uncertainty.”
The new contract competition is the first time the UC will have to compete for its stewardship of the facilities. The University of Texas, partnered with private defense contractor Lockheed Martin, recently announced its plans to contend for the management of LANL. The defense researcher Northrop Grumman Corporation has also announced plans to bid for the facility.
Tom Hash, president of Bechtel National, said that due to the intensity of the competition, the UC-Bechtel bid would be prepared in an undisclosed location. Dynes said the UC will use about $2 million from its reserves to assemble the bid.
Hash said he was excited about the opportunity to work with the UC during the competition, and possibly for the duration of the contract.
“We have put together a breadth and depth of experience that is unmatched in this country,” Hash said. “We can be more effective by having more resources to apply. We have to want it badly to win it.”