SANTA FE, N.M. — The competition for a multibillion-dollar contract to manage the U.S. laboratory that created the atomic bomb is beginning as criticism intensifies over the troubled safety record of Los Alamos National Laboratory.
The National Nuclear Security Administration on Tuesday posted online its intent to conduct a competition for the lab’s management and operation contract.
The agency said the process will provide the best opportunity to improve the terms and conditions of the lucrative contract to provide performance incentives at the northern New Mexico nuclear weapons research center.
The current contract with Los Alamos National Security LLC – a private consortium that includes Bechtel and the University of California – expires in September 2018. The NNSA decided against extending the contract, which has a $2.2 billion annual budget, after a series of subpar performance reviews.
The contest for the new contract could have somewhat of a New Mexico flavor, as did last year’s bidding to run Sandia National Laboratories. All three of the state’s research universities joined groups to put forth Sandia proposals that lost out to a team headed by Honeywell International.
A spokesman for the University of New Mexico said Tuesday the school is “very interested” in the competition over the LANL contract.
“We are evaluating the situation and look forward to more information as it becomes available,” said Joe Cecchi, associate provost for national laboratory relations.
Van Romero, New Mexico Tech’s vice president of research and economic development, said Tech already “has been invited to join numerous teams interested in placing a bid, but (officials) are still evaluating before making a decision.”
A spokesman for New Mexico State University said it hasn’t been considering the LANL contract.
Criticism of the lab’s safety record has intensified as it prepares to resume production of plutonium “pits” – the triggers for nuclear bombs – for the nation’s weapons cache.
Los Alamos officials have said the lab’s plutonium facility is operating safely and that improvements have been made in recent years. But watchdog groups and others have questioned whether the lab can take on manufacturing of the plutonium cores given its history of management and oversight issues, along with more recent safety concerns.
Greg Mello with the Los Alamos Study Group said the present contract model separates authority from responsibility. He suggested the federal government have more of a role in operating the lab, with the help of one or more private contractors.
“Accidents and shutdowns will be inevitable until NNSA can start exerting sufficient authority, including and especially budget authority, at LANL,” Mello said.
Just last Friday, federal officials announced an investigation into the lab’s improper shipment of nuclear material to other federal facilities around the country via a commercial cargo plane. That followed other reports about the mishandling of plutonium and radioactive waste at Los Alamos.
Los Alamos lab director Charlie McMillan told employees in an internal memo that the work done at Los Alamos will transcend the coming contract changeover. “We must continue to execute our national security mission safely and securely while the NNSA works to complete their process,” he wrote.
McMillan also said: “At the end of the day, we must each fully accept the fact that we will be held accountable for any serious mistakes. The actions we take have profound consequences on the Laboratory’s reputation and its future. As I have often said, the Laboratory has a vibrant future – but this future depends on your commitment to executing our national security mission safely and securely each day.”
A recent series of news stories published by the Center for Public Integrity cites numerous internal reports and other documents outlining federal regulators’ concerns about safety lapses at the lab over the years, including a plutonium spill last summer and workers handling plutonium rods in a way that could have been disastrous.
The center this week also detailed workplace hazards at Los Alamos, Sandia and other labs that make up the U.S. nuclear complex. Federal records showed numerous instances in which the contractors committed new safety infractions, even after being hit with financial penalties for malfeasance. Experts said the situation suggests the contractors are building the fines and penalties into their economic models.
A spokesman for the University of California, which ran LANL on its own until the federal government put the contract out for competition for the first time in 2006, said Tuesday the university sees its “75-year association with the Los Alamos National Laboratory as a part of its public service mission.”
The school will review the NNSA’s draft request for proposals coming in July and the final RFP expected in September to “determine how best to proceed in the interests” of both UC and LANL, the statement said.
Fred deSousa, a spokesman for Bechtel, said, “We will evaluate the opportunity as we would any other, and look forward to the release of the draft request for proposals. Our first priority continues to be helping the Laboratory complete its missions safely and efficiently.”
LANL has struggled to rebuild its reputation following a 2014 chemical reaction that stemmed from inappropriately packaging a barrel of radioactive waste. That caused a radiation leak at the nation’s only underground nuclear waste repository – the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant at Carlsbad – that led to costly recovery work and a backlog in the nation’s program for cleaning up waste from decades of research and bomb-making.