New Energy

Bids for long-held Los Alamos National Lab usher in an era of procurement reform.

More than 60 years after scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory rocked the world with the first test of an atomic bomb, the New Mexico nuclear weapons facility is about to feel the earth move again. The scandal-plagued lab now run by the Energy Department's No. 1 contractor, the University of California, could be under new management by June 2006.

For the first time in history, the contract to operate Los Alamos is up for grabs, and three of the top four Energy contractors are competing. Lockheed Martin Corp., No. 3, has teamed up with the University of Texas to snatch the business from the California school and its new partner, No. 2 contractor Bechtel Group Inc. Bidding for the $79-million-a-year contract closed July 19, and the contenders will go behind closed doors with Energy for oral presentations in August. A seven-year contract with 13 years of renewal options is to be awarded Dec. 1.

This is the second of three rounds for UC, which receives better than 17 percent of Energy's $22 billion annual procurement outlay. For more than half a century, the university had exclusive arrangements to manage Los Alamos and two other national laboratories in California-Lawrence Berkeley and Lawrence Livermore. A string of security lapses and procurement abuses prompted Congress to end the school's uncontested run. UC managed to hang on to the Berkeley contract, winning a new five-year deal worth an estimated $2.3 billion in April. The Livermore contract will be put out to bid next year.

Launching a competition for the lab contracts represents a major step in procurement reform at the Energy Department, but the Government Accountability Office, Energy's inspector general and lawmakers want the department to go several steps further.

Recent reports from GAO and the IG-perennial critics of Energy's acquisition management-argue that despite some advances, the department's contract administration and oversight functions bear watching. Energy acknowledged the problems in its 2004 Performance and Accountability Report, which listed project management and contract oversight improvements as significant goals.

Congress wants the Energy Department to promote technology commercialization and boost small business contracting opportunities, the message of the 2005 Energy Policy Act. Congress passed the bill and on July 29 sent it to President Bush, who promised to sign it.

The legislation calls on each of Energy's national laboratories and single-purpose research facilities to establish a small business assistance program and designate a small business advocate. The programs would offer up to $10,000 worth of technical help to improve a company's products or services. The advocate's job would be twofold: to attract smaller vendors and research companies and to increase internal awareness about the capabilities of small and disadvantaged companies.

The bill requires the Energy secretary to establish a technology transfer working group and to hire a top-level adviser to oversee its activities.

The group of representatives from Energy's national laboratories and other department research facilities would identify other uses for technology and disseminate information about them to the public and prospective commercial partners. Energy would have six months to present a technology transfer plan to Congress.