- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 1, 2003

The Energy Department will take competitive bids for the contract to run Los Alamos National Laboratory for the first time in the nuclear-weapons lab's history, after high-profile management breakdowns shook confidence in current management.
In his announcement yesterday, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham recognized the value of the work done by the University of California, which has managed the lab since it was the birthplace of the atom bomb six decades ago. But he said it bears responsibility for the management failures that have recently come to light.
"Given that responsibility and the widespread nature of the problems uncovered at Los Alamos, I intend to open the management of Los Alamos to full competition when the contract expires," he said. The contract is scheduled to lapse in September 2005.
Mr. Abraham ordered a review of the contract after two fired lab investigators went public with concerns about misuse of money and lax fraud controls. It also follows other embarrassing episodes, including misplaced hard drives containing classified information and the case of Wen Ho Lee, who was investigated for mishandling nuclear weapons codes and later freed in a plea deal.
"There has just been a pattern of classified areas that are not properly secured, employees misappropriating equipment and funds, and on and on," said Steven Aftergood, who tracks the lab for the Federation of American Scientists. "It all adds up to a pretty unflattering picture for the university."
University of California President Richard C. Atkinson said in a statement yesterday that his "instinct continues to be to compete and to compete hard" to keep the lab contract.
"We believe, with every fiber of our institutional being, that continued UC management is in the absolute best interests of the nation's security," Mr. Atkinson said.
Mr. Abraham's decision is based on a report prepared by Deputy Energy Secretary Kyle McSlarrow that documented gaping holes in Los Alamos business practices.
"The fact that there was not greater fraud and theft at Los Alamos is a tribute to the character of the vast majority of men and women working there and not to the efficacy of the management systems in place," Mr. McSlarrow wrote.
Mr. McSlarrow's report said that while the University of California was slow to respond, once it became engaged "its actions were broad, forceful and effective."
Acting National Nuclear Security Administrator Linton Brooks will be responsible for developing the bidding criteria. In an e-mail message to Los Alamos employees yesterday, he assured them that current workers will be retained and said he plans to visit the lab on May 6 to answer questions.
Rep. Ellen O. Tauscher, California Democrat, said Mr. Brooks told her yesterday that the university would be given a fair chance to compete for the contract.
"But the unfortunate history of incumbents competing contracts within DOE is abysmal," she said. "Incumbents told to compete contracts always lose."
Mrs. Tauscher, whose district includes Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, said NNSA and the Energy Department must share in the blame for Los Alamos' problems, and unless they make changes, the university's reforms won't matter.

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