Energy to open more nuclear lab contracts to competition

The Energy Department plans to place four more nuclear facility management contracts up for bids, officials announced Tuesday.

As required by a fiscal 2004 budget measure enacted last month (H.R. 2754), Energy will open contracts to run Ames, Argonne, Lawrence Berkeley and Lawrence Livermore laboratories to competition. The department has already said it will place the University of California's contract to operate Los Alamos National Laboratory up for bids once that agreement expires in 2005.

The University of California runs Lawrence Berkeley and Lawrence Livermore laboratories in addition to Los Alamos. University officials were not surprised to see those facilities added to the list of labs vulnerable to competition, university spokesman Chris Harrington said Tuesday. While Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham formally announced the move in a Jan. 27 Federal Register notice, the department's 2004 budget, signed into law on Dec. 1, 2003, gave him little choice but to place the contracts up for bids, Harrington said.

Under that legislation, Energy cannot spend 2004 budget dollars on "noncompetitive" management contracts. The University of California has never been forced to defend its contracts to manage Los Alamos, Lawrence Berkeley or Lawrence Livermore.

University officials have not decided whether they will submit a bid to renew the contracts, Harrington said. But the university is ensuring that it would be well-positioned to compete, should it choose to do so, he added.

As part of a continuing effort to improve management at Los Alamos, university officials are seeking advice from industry, Harrington said. Recently, university officials have entered into discussions with two potential "industrial partners," he said, that would like to "team with the university to strengthen business and operations." They would offer expertise in areas including financial management, procurement, supply chain management and human resources, he said.

In 2002, two Los Alamos investigators accused lab managers of covering up widespread government purchase card abuse and obstructing investigations. Managers allegedly warned the investigators, Glenn Walp and Steven Doran, that they risked losing their jobs if they made the University of California look bad by exposing theft and fraud.

A former computer analyst at Los Alamos in April 2003 claimed managers at the New Mexico facility purposely thwarted an e-mail monitoring program designed to prevent security leaks, at the university's request.

The proposed industry partnership is one means of solidifying lab management and would help prepare the university to compete, should it attempt to renew its contracts, Harrington said. University officials will likely hold off on this decision until Energy publishes a request for proposals, he said.

Energy has not yet decided on a time line for running the competitions, according to the Federal Register announcement. Under the 2004 budget law, the department could extend existing contracts up to two years in order to allow enough time to run a competition.

Iowa State University, which runs Ames Laboratory, and the University of Chicago, which manages Argonne National Laboratory, will also need to defend their contracts against competitors.

Ames laboratory is one of the smaller facilities on the list, and is unique among the laboratories in that it is located on the state university's campus, said spokesman Kerry Gibson. Many of the laboratory staff members are also on the university faculty, he said.

The university has run the lab since its founding in 1947. "Given the logistics and the long history, I don't think that there's really much possibility of anyone else [besides Iowa State] running it," Gibson said. "At the same time, I think the university is taking the contract bidding quite seriously."

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