Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – The incoming director of Los Alamos National Laboratory said Tuesday he knows the lab he’s taking over is “a high consequence place.”
Thomas Mason – former director of Tennessee’s Oak Ridge National laboratory – acknowledged that safety lapses were “quite frankly” the reason the $2.2 billion-a-year LANL operating contract was rebid recently by the federal government.
“It’s high consequence in terms of the impact of the mission work that they do and it’s also high consequence in the degree that you have to pay attention to what might go wrong, whether it’s safety or security,” said Mason at an event in Austin, Texas, that was moderated by a journalist and streamed online.
Mason is president and CEO of Triad National Security LLC, which won the bidding in June and is comprised of Texas A&M University, the University of California and Ohio-based Battelle Memorial Institute, a huge scientific nonprofit that has been involved in other national lab operations and where Mason has been an executive.
He said Triad submitted a proposal “built around where we need to bring change” to LANL operations that need to improve. The group on Nov. 1 will replace a private consortium, including the University of California and Bechtel, that has run the lab since 2006,
Mason said Triad will combine the experience of people now working at Los Alamos with “people from all across the country” with proven success in areas where LANL has had “challenges.”
Texas A&M Chancellor John Sharp said Triad’s proposal was favorably scored by the National Nuclear Security Administration before it reached the desk of U.S. Department of Energy Secretary Rick Perry.
Perry, who was Texas governor until 2015, is a Texas A&M alumnus and was friends with Sharp in college. Perry appointed many of the school’s regents who are still serving today.
NNSA has previously said Perry played no role in the evaluation or selection of new management at Los Alamos.
“I’m told it’s highly unusual to not have any protests, and no one (among other bidders) protested this deal,” Sharp said.
UC managed to survive as part of the winning bid despite high-profile controversies over safety problems at LANL in recent years while the California school was part of the management team.
Those include LANL’s improper packaging of a radioactive waste drum that led to a radiation release and a nearly three-year closure of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad, the nation’s only underground nuclear waste repository.
Last year, a Los Alamos worker sent a package of plutonium cross-country by commercial air freight, for which NNSA fined the lab $3 million.
Sharp said there have “been mistakes in the past” but there is “no denying” the history and continuity that UC brings to the lab. UC ran LANL on its own for six decades starting with the Manhattan Project to build an atom bomb during World War II.
“What Triad represents is continuity with change,” said Sharp.
Mason said Triad – made up of three nonprofits – is a nonprofit itself and “public service focused.”
“I think that’s a good model for something like Los Alamos,” he said. He said that for an entity “solely motivated by fee, this may not be something you want to do.” The lab contractor can earn upwards of $60 million in fees annually, depending on performance reviews, in addition to the contract amount.
“It’s something that a national service motivation gives you a better chance of delivery of the right outcomes,” said Mason.
Mason said it’s still not clear whether, as a nonprofit, Triad will have to pay New Mexico gross receipts taxes, similar to a sales tax.
“Nonprofit is not the same as tax-exempt,” he said.
The current private LANL contractor has paid more than $70 million dollars a year in GRT that goes to New Mexico state government, Los Alamos County and other local governments.
Sharp said Texas A&M will provide the same in-state tuition deal to children of LANL workers that the UC system has offered over the years. He also said that A&M will provide “intensive” workforce training for lab jobs in the counties around Los Alamos that are “perhaps not as prosperous.”
Mason and Sharp noted that A&M and Battelle had worked together previously on an unsuccessful bid to run Sandia National Laboratory in Albuquerque. That worked out, Sharp said, because if they had won the Sandia job, they might not have pursued the LANL contract.
“And Los Alamos, that’s the cat’s meow,” he said
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
New LANL chief says lab ‘high consequence’