- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 21, 2005

LOS ALAMOS, N.M. (AP) — The Wen Ho Lee case. Confusion over the whereabouts of classified computer disks. Disgruntled scientists posting complaints on the Internet.

Los Alamos, the government laboratory that built the atomic bomb during World War II, is beset with turmoil and uncertainty, and there could be more to come.

The U.S. government is putting the contract to operate Los Alamos up for bid for the first time since the lab was created in 1943 as part of the top-secret Manhattan Project.

The University of California, which has run Los Alamos from the beginning, could be out. A defense contractor with a more bottom-line outlook could be in.

And that worries some.

The government’s request for bids appears to be “skewed toward a corporate structure, rather than a not-for-profit entity,” said Rep. Tom Udall, New Mexico Democrat. “I hope this requirement does not affect the science at the lab — or result in an exodus of employees, as many have feared.”

Tyler Przybylek of the National Nuclear Security Administration, the Energy Department agency that plans to award the new contract by Dec. 1, gave assurances Thursday about Los Alamos’ future.

“I think that what people will see over time is good operations and good business aren’t the enemies of great science — they enable it,” Mr. Przybylek said.

Los Alamos is one of three chief installations responsible for maintaining the nation’s nuclear arsenal and manufacturing weapons components. It also conducts research on a host of topics, including miniaturized technology, genetics, computing, the environment and health.

In 1999, in a case that proved a major embarrassment for the government and the lab, Los Alamos scientist Wen Ho Lee was jailed during an investigation into possible Chinese espionage. The case proved to be weak, and the scientist pleaded guilty to mishandling classified information. He was released with an apology from a federal judge.

The lab was rocked by other security lapses, as well as credit card abuses, and theft of equipment.

Retired Vice Adm. Pete Nanos was brought in as director two years ago and was credited by the Energy Department earlier this month, when he stepped down, with instituting some sound business practices.

But he also made enemies with his brusque management style. Some workers responded with a blog site, or Web journal, that ridiculed their boss.

Thursday, the government released its request for proposals from businesses or institutions interested in running Los Alamos, offering to pay up to $79 million a year to a contractor.

The University of Texas plans to team up with Lockheed Martin and bid on the contract. The University of California has joined forces with Bechtel but has yet to announce whether it will compete. Northrop Grumman also plans to bid.

Charles Mansfield, who heads a group of retired lab employees, said uncertainty over the lab’s future and poor morale have led key scientists to consider retiring early.

“From the nation’s standpoint, it’s turning out to be a terrible debacle,” he said.

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