New Management Takes Over at Los Alamos

Eli is a contributing correspondent for Science magazine.

Ending a 63-year reign for the University of California (UC) as the sole manager of the storied lab, a new consortium of industrial and academic partners today assumed control of Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) outside Santa Fe, New Mexico. The transition, which has been bumpy at times, comes after years of security and management scandals at the 9000 person nuclear weapons lab.

"Today marks the start of a new era," wrote Director Michael Anastasio in an lab-wide e-mail. He called for "unparalleled science through leadership, innovation, best business practices, and a focus on safe and secure operations."

The new management, Los Alamos National Security, is a partnership between UC and megacontractor Bechtel, BWX Technologies, and Washington Group International. Pressed by lawmakers angered by UC's performance as lab manager, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) announced in 2003 a first-ever competition for the lab contract (ScienceNOW, 30 April 2003). Emphasizing new security, accounting, and management controls, the UC/Bechtel team faced down aerospace giant Lockheed Martin to win the contract late last year (ScienceNOW, 21 December, 2005).

One of two bomb design laboratories in the U.S., Los Alamos' weapons activities could get a shot in the arm as DOE pushes to build new nuclear weapons designed to be long-lasting and require no testing. But those pursuing nonclassified work note that the lab's $2.2 billion annual budget has remained flat or declined in recent years, and the new contract's stipulated $60 million to $70 million in yearly fees to the management could sap nonclassified science funding. Much of that work is done with outside companies or agencies. "A decreased amount of research done for non-DOE clients has LANL's reputation as a science institution poised to fall," wrote local resident Greg Mello of the watchdog Los Alamos Study Group on the popular blog LANL: The Real Story.

Mello and others worry that a growing bureaucracy, including dozens of new managers representing the lab management's four corporate partners, could lead to waste. And questions remain about retirement benefits, which under the new contract will no longer tap UC's well-funded system. Still, fears of a mass exodus were not realized when last month 96% of employees decided to stay at the lab and become employees of the new company. Doug Roberts, a former Los Alamos computer scientist who runs LANL: The Real Story says employees welcome the new management with "cautious concern."

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