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          Front Page




Decision Looms on Los Alamos Nuclear Lab Contract

By Jennifer Talhelm/
Associated Press
      WASHINGTON — The government office overseeing the nation's nuclear weapons complex is nearing its Dec. 1 deadline to decide which of two teams will get the $79 million-a-year contract to manage Los Alamos National Laboratory.
    The contenders include a group headed by the University of California — which has managed the lab since it was created during World War II — and Bechtel Corp., and another team comprised of Lockheed Martin and the University of Texas.
    As they await the decision, both teams are rushing to make sure everything's ready in case they win.
    "Things are very hectic here,'' said Don Carson, a spokesman for the UT/Lockheed group. "Everybody's trying to make sure we've dotted all the 'I's' and crossed all the 'T's' to make sure we've done all the things we need to do.''
    Both teams submitted their bids in July, then gave oral presentations in August. So far, neither has been called back to answer more questions.
    The bids contain plans for how they will encourage science and manage safety and security. The National Nuclear Security Administration says it is evaluating the teams' strengths and weaknesses and will score each according to a set of criteria.
    After the government awards the contract, there will be a six-month transition period so the new managers can observe the lab's operations before taking over.
    Further details of the bids or the evaluation process have been closely guarded secrets.
    Many lawmakers hope the change will stop the run of scandals and safety concerns that have plagued Los Alamos in recent years.
    But meanwhile, the decision is anxiously awaited in Los Alamos, a remote town at the top of a mesa where life revolves around the lab at which scientists secretly developed the world's first atomic bomb.
    Some say life has been put on hold. Alex Arevalo, acting manager of Prudential Los Alamos Realty, said he's noticed that some people are hesitant to buy property.
    "I joked about people being deer in the headlights, not knowing what to do until the contract is announced in December,'' he said.
    Both sides have opened storefront offices in Los Alamos where employees and residents can ask questions about the teams' plans for the lab under the new contract.
    "Our concern is doing everything we can to prepare to minimize the level of anxiety that comes with change,'' said Michael Anastasio, who leads the University of California group.
    The UT/Lockheed team is preparing to open an office within the next week in Española, where many Los Alamos employees live.
    Rod Geer, a spokesman for the team, said an average of seven or eight residents, employees and retirees visit the Los Alamos office each day. Some just pick up brochures, but others talk for hours about making sure the new managers will encourage the same level of science the lab has been respected for in the past 60 years.
    "The most important thing is to answer and listen,'' Geer said. "We have a pretty good idea of what they want to see stay ... and what they don't like.''