The UT System Board of Regents has allocated $500,000 to analyze a possible bid for the Los Alamos National Labs management contract.
System Chancellor Mark Yudof was authorized to use the funding to hire consultants to explore the feasibility of a bid in a Feb. 4 meeting of the Regents at University of Texas, Brownsville. If the System decides to bid, it will cost approximately $6 million, Yudof said.
In United States Congressional legislation passed in April of last year, Los Alamos and all other national laboratory management contracts not competed for in the last 50 years must be put up for competitive bid.
UT System officials agreed budget constraints due to recent state cuts in higher education funding should not factor into the equation of whether the system will bid to manage the facility.
“We don’t see (the budget cuts) as a reason to not compete or not do our basic duty which includes community service research and academics,” said Charles Miller, chairman of the Board of Regents. “So the premise there about the financial crisis, that this is somehow is a cost to that, we don’t accept that.”
Yudof said the economic future of the state lies on winning management contracts of national laboratories adding that Gov. Rick Perry and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson support the effort. He added that if the System decides to bid on the Los Alamos management contract, it would “enter into this venture with one or more partners, yet to be determined.”
“We will try to match the skills that (partners) bring to the table with our strengths and come up with the best combination,” said Charles Sorber, former UT Arlington interim president.
A system-wide task force – formed by Yudof and led by former Chancellor Dan Burck – will analyze the potential bid. The task force includes UTD’s Dean of Engineering and Computer Science Robert Helms.
“The bidding process about to begin will make sure that whichever institution wins will be selected through a rigorous process so that Los Alamos receives the best leadership possible,” Helms said.
The University of California (UC) has managed Los Alamos and two other national laboratories since their conception more than 60 years ago. UC has left its options open and has not expressed intentions to compete for control to manage Los Alamos, according to a UC press release.
“The scientific talent in areas such as physics and large-scale computation are at the top of any institution in the world,” Helms said. “Unfortunately these accomplishments have been overshadowed recently by some major failures in security and management systems.”
Los Alamos management has been under scrutiny since 1999 when nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee was suspected of spying for China. More recently, the laboratory was fined $854,087 on Feb. 3 by the New Mexican Environment Department for environmental violations discovered during a 2001 inspection.
Since the announcement by the Department of Energy last spring that the Los Alamos management contract would be placed in a competitive bidding process Lockheed Martin, the University of Colorado and others have shown interest.
“In academia, I do not see systems other than UT or UC with the breadth and depth to undertake such a major project,” Helms said.
“There are very few entities that can actually manage (Los Alamos),” agreed Da Hsuan Feng, UTD’s vice president for research and graduate education. “Only the UT System could benefit enormously.”
Feng also said by managing Los Alamos, the southwest region would draw more attention from the rest of the world rather than just the west and east coasts.
“This is an incredible opportunity not just for UTD, but all research in the entire Southwest,” Feng said. “We would start blinking on a global scale.”
The research capabilities at Los Alamos will be endless, Feng said. Physics, biotechnology, large scale computation and nano-science are just some of the areas – along with classified research – that UTD can take advantage of, Feng said.
“We see this as an opportunity for service to the state (and) as an opportunity for service to our country and its national security,” Yudof said. “We also see this as an important and significant step for the University of Texas System in terms of its efforts to collaborate and cooperatively move forward in areas such as engineering and science.”
But many Los Alamos workers are concerned with losing their benefits if the management is granted to the UT System, according to an article in the Albuquerque Tribune.
“Those employees are critical to the success of the lab in its historic success and its future success, so it’s a very high priority to maintain those outstanding people,” Yudof said. “When all is said and done it’s the human capital at Los Alamos that is at least as important as the physical infrastructure.”
Los Alamos currently designs more than 60 percent of the U.S. nuclear arsenal and was founded as a part of the Manhattan Project to create the atomic bomb during World War II.
The UT System spent $800,000 on a potential bid for Sandia National Laboratory in 2002, but the bid was never competed because Lockheed Martin’s contract was extended by five years.
“We won’t go into this unless we think we can win,” Sorber said. “We don’t plan to come out second place.”