University of California retains hand in running nuclear lab

WASHINGTON—The University of California on Tuesday survived recurring controversy to retain a hand in running the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

A new partnership of corporate and university collaborators will now manage the renowned nuclear weapons lab. The Energy Department called the seven-year contract a fresh start for a lab that's sometimes squirmed under the spotlight.

"For the first time in the history of the laboratory, a new contractor is coming to Livermore," Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman said Tuesday.

Called Lawrence Livermore National Security, the winning lab contractor includes Texas A&M University and the engineering giant Bechtel. Lawrence Livermore National Security can earn up to $45.5 million a year if it does a good job running the lab.

The University of California, which has managed Lawrence Livermore since the lab's founding in 1952, created the corporation and remains a major player in it.

"We are delighted at the opportunity to continue playing a role in supporting the laboratory's mission of scientific achievement in the interests of national security and global cooperation," University of California President Robert C. Dynes said.

The University of California team bested another partnership led by defense contractor Northrop Grumman. It was the first time there was formal competition for the lab contract.

With its $1.6 billion budget, Lawrence Livermore has long put its stamp on national security. Lawrence Livermore scientists designed Polaris nuclear warheads in the 1950s, multiple-entry warheads in the 1960s and the world's most powerful laser in the 1980s, among other breakthroughs.

Federal overseers have lauded Lawrence Livermore repeatedly.

The lab "has continued to make `outstanding' contributions to research and development," the National Nuclear Security Administration concluded in its 2004 formal appraisal.

Recurring management problems, though, prompted the university to look for partners when the Lawrence Livermore contract came up for renewal. The current contract expires Sept. 30.

Critics, for instance, once questioned whether the lab's plutonium supplies were vulnerable to a terrorist attack. The federal government's otherwise laudatory 2004 appraisal warned that the lab was at "an unsatisfactory performance level" in facility safety.

"We had significant problems with lost keys at ... Lawrence Livermore," Linton F. Brooks, administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration, told a House of Representatives panel in March 2005. "Although in no case could those keys allow access to special nuclear material . . . we saw their loss as a sign that security procedures needed improvement."

More recently, government auditors noted that Lawrence Livermore's stadium-sized laser, called the National Ignition Facility, will cost at least $1.7 billion more than planned and will open six years late. Experienced partners should help fend off such problems.

The Lawrence Livermore partnership also includes Battelle Memorial Institute, Washington Group International and several smaller firms. All bring something to the table.

Battelle runs nuclear facilities, including the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, while Washington Group International owns the firm that helped build the Golden Gate Bridge and Hoover Dam.


(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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