Cal Seeks to Hold Role as Los Alamos Manager

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The University of California is fighting to stay on as manager of the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, birthplace of the atom bomb. It may have to compete against other bidders, including the University of Texas. What does the competition mean for the future of the lab?


The federal government is looking for a new manager for a stunning 25,000-acre property in northern New Mexico. There are beautiful canyons, plenty of sun, historic buildings and nearby ski slopes. The catch? Tons of plutonium and multiple congressional committees that will watch your every move. The site is Los Alamos National Laboratory, often called a birthplace of the atomic bomb. The Department of Energy has put the lab's contract up for bid after a string of controversies over safety and security. It now looks as if a for-profit company will for the first time take a lead role in running things. NPR's David Kestenbaum reports.


Sixty years ago, the scientists who built the first atomic bomb insisted that Los Alamos be run like a university. They wanted to be able to argue and share ideas. So in a secret deal, the government hired the University of California to run things. Today, the lab is still run by the university. It's a $2 billion-a-year operation with some 14,000 employees. Joe Marts(ph) went to the University of California and says the arrangement has not always been popular on campus. He's now a deputy division leader for the lab's X Division, where many of the nuclear weapons scientists work.

Mr. JOE MARTS: I have protesters at my graduate seminars saying the university should not be involved in this type of work. I would counter by saying that who better than someone without bias to ensure that the right answers are given to the country, so that when a tough decision has to be made about the safety or reliability of something as important as our nuclear deterrent, that it is done so with the upmost integrity. An institution like the University of California brings that integrity that you might not have with the for-profit defense contract.

KESTENBAUM: Marts says if a defense contractor does take a dominant role, it could also make hiring difficult for him.

Mr. MARTS: In X Division, the average age of my staff is in the range of 50 years old, and when I'm trying to attract the best and brightest new recruits and they look at whether or not they would work for a defense contractor vs. a University of California, the choice for them becomes very easy.

KESTENBAUM: They go with the university, he says. It looks as if a university will continue to be involved but with a defense contractor as a major partner. The University of California is teaming up with Bechtel, a global engineering and construction company. Competing against them for the contract so far will be a team led by the University of Texas and Lockheed Martin, known for building fighter jets and missiles. Jack Gandler(ph) has no problem with for-profit companies getting involved. He's a former undersecretary of Defense. Two years ago, he served on a panel that advised putting the Los Alamos contract up for bid.

Mr. JACK GANDLER (Former Undersecretary of Defense): I'd rather almost have a defense contractor because they're used to dealing with the security aspects of a place like Los Alamos. And Los Alamos, of course, is originally the nuclear facility for nuclear weapons and a very highly sensitive area, one in which the national security literally is involved, and defense contractors are more used to dealing in that environment.

KESTENBAUM: Lockheed Martin, for instance, already runs Sandia National Laboratory. Lockheed recently hired Sandia's former director, Paul Robinson, to help prepare his proposal to run Los Alamos. Robinson says scientists shouldn't worry that academic freedom will be strangled if Lockheed moves in, and as for concerns about conflict of interest, Robinson says Lockheed isn't in it for the money.

Mr. PAUL ROBINSON (Former Director, Sandia): This is certainly a national service. One sense, they're doing it for pride. The other sense is to make sure they stay aware of breaking research developments that can change certainly the defense industry or national security writ large.

KESTENBAUM: Whoever wins the contract will get access to thousands of top scientists and engineers, experts in super computers, explosives, genetics.

Still, the prestige of running the birthplace of the bomb was apparently not enough on its own. The Department of Energy originally said a new contractor could earn as much as $30 million a year for running the lab. They then upped the maximum to $79 million. That's 10 times what the University of California can make under the current arrangement. Proposals are due July 19th. The winner will be announced in December.

David Kestenbaum, NPR News.

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