Bechtel, University of California to run Los Alamos

Eli is a contributing correspondent for Science magazine.

WASHINGTON, D.C.--A team co-led by industrial contractor Bechtel of San Francisco and the University of California (UC) has won the management contract for Los Alamos National Laboratory, the Department of Energy (DOE) announced here today. The decision, 2 years in the making, gives the country's biggest university system a fresh start to run the lab after years of turmoil. But UC will have a diminished role for the lab under the new management structure--to be called Los Alamos National Security LLC.

The University of California has managed the $2.2 billion facility in New Mexico since it was founded in 1943, when scientists created the atomic bomb there as part of the Manhattan project. But recent years have been turbulent for the institution and the 12,000-person lab, one of two U.S. weapons laboratories. In 2003, following a string of security and safety incidents at the lab, congress directed DOE to put the contract up for competition; previously UC renewed its contract annually (ScienceNOW, 30 April 2003). Since then, a laser accident, disks with classified information that appeared lost, and a much-criticized lab-wide standdown kept the heat on the facility (ScienceNOW, 21 September 2004).

Given UC's troubles at the lab in recent years, and the challenge for the contract by aerospace contractor Lockheed Martin, DOE officials underscored the corporate partners' roles. "This is a new contract, with a new team, marking a new approach to management at Los Alamos," said energy secretary Samuel Bodman. "If the new team lives up to our expectations, as I fully expect, we have set Los Alamos on a course for continued excellence for a generation."

   The new director of the laboratory will be weapons designer Michael Anastasio, who currently heads rival lab Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Joining UC and Bechtel (which also manages the Nevada Test Site outside Las Vegas and other DOE weapons facilities) on the team are Boise, Idaho-based Washington Group International and BWX Technologies, of Lynchburg, Virginia, both industrial contractors with extensive nuclear facility experience. Officials didn't reveal details on who would do what. The new contract will begin in June.

Experts said the new corporate partners would help right the ship at Los Alamos. "The labs have to show value for the taxpayer dollars we're spending," says Robert Teller, a former Los Alamos information manager now with consultancy Booz Allen Hamilton in McClean, Virginia.

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