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UC hangs in there at Los Alamos

It became official this week – a group that includes the University of California, Texas A&M and the giant scientific nonprofit Battelle Memorial Institute of Ohio is taking over the operating and management contract at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

The U.S. Department of Energy had picked Triad National Security LLC for the job a few weeks ago, but there was no formal notice to proceed until an appeals period had passed for the other bidders for the LANL contract, worth an estimated $25 million over 10 years. Triad assumes management of the lab on Nov. 1.

The big news is that inadequate federal performance reviews and bad press over safety lapses at LANL didn’t cost the University of California a piece of the contract. UC has been part of the lab’s management since the Manhattan Project, first alone at the top and then as part of a private consortium with Bechtel and two other companies since 2006.

It’s intriguing to consider the politics of Triad’s choice for the LANL job. Energy Secretary Rick Perry is a Texas A&M grad. DOE says Perry had nothing to do with the contractor selection. UC apparently initiated the split with Bechtel this contract go-round, with a goal of improving its chances.

Texas Monthly recently addressed some of these issues. The magazine’s article says that at a September meeting of the UC Board of Regents, some regents blamed Bechtel for the various mistakes at LANL – the biggest, of course, being improperly packing a radioactive waste container with a combustible mix.

The drum breached and contaminated the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad, where it had been stored, and shut down the nuclear waste storage facility, costing the contracting group many of millions of dollars in lost fees and in a settlement with the New Mexico state government.

A UC regent said at the September meeting that Bechtel had been brought into UC’s group for the bidding for the 2006 LANL contract award, during the George W. Bush administration, because the company was “a Republican group,” according a letter Texas Monthly obtained.

Bechtel’s president sent the letter to UC President Janet Napolitano as a response to the criticism of his company. The letter also objected to criticism of Perry by the same UC regent, the magazine reported.

In any case, UC went with new partners and won again. Now it’s time to see if LANL can stop generating bad news.

At a meeting with northern New Mexico local government leaders in January, Kim Budil, UC’s vice president for national labs, pretty much promised to do better if the university managed to stay part of lab management.

She said the idea of the university linking up with a corporate giant in 2006 was to bring the strengths of the university together with best practices from the private sector. “Some aspects worked exceptionally well,” but others didn’t, she said, with the WIPP contamination “highlighting” shortcomings.

“People with deep expertise of the chemistry of nuclear waste weren’t necessarily deeply embedded” in the operational side of the lab, Budil said. And she maintained that after the WIPP accident, “We transformed the way we operate in very fundamental ways.”

Budil also admitted there had been “missed opportunities” for the university to establish more of an institutional presence in northern New Mexico communities over the decades, but she touted new programs to support tech startups and for entrepreneurial fellowships as ways to do more in the future.

It’s always seemed odd to those of us with only an outside view of the lab – where so many brilliant scientists and engineers come to work – that many of its public failures come from not following simple, factory-like instructions.

The WIPP accident famously resulted from using a wheat-based kitty litter to absorb liquid in a waste drum with nitrates – a mix that anyone with a basic knowledge of should have known would lead to a reaction. Indeed, “People with deep expertise of the chemistry of nuclear waste weren’t necessarily deeply embedded.”

Someone at the lab sent plutonium across the country using a commercial air cargo service, a mistake that cost the contractors another $3.1 million in government fees.

If computer makers can make tiny chips by creating dust-free environments, LANL managers should be able to impose similar rigor when handling dangerous radioactive materials.

The lab has a lot of important things to do, but paying attention to blue-collar details should be job number one when Triad takes over in November.

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