University of Texas System regents on Thursday unexpectedly postponed a vote on submitting a proposal to manage and operate Los Alamos National Laboratory, birthplace of the nation’s nuclear arsenal.
Regents’ Chairwoman Sara Martinez Tucker gave no reason for the delay, simply saying that the matter was being postponed until Nov. 27. Other than her brief comment, the regents did not discuss Los Alamos in public, although it was part of their closed-door discussion earlier in the day.
The postponement was surprising because the regents’ agenda called for “discussion and appropriate action regarding development of a bid for management” of the lab. In September, the regents authorized the system to spend up to $4.5 million to prepare a bid to run the storied lab in the mountains of northern New Mexico, where physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer led development of the atomic bombs that were dropped on Japan during World War II.
Proposals are due on Dec. 11 at the National Nuclear Security Administration, an arm of the U.S. Department of Energy.
Asked whether the regents had questions that couldn’t be answered at this point, Deputy Chancellor David Daniel told reporters, “No, I would just say this is a continuing process. We’re developing more information, and because the board is going to meet again, as it turns out, we’ll have an opportunity to discuss it with them then.”
Asked whether he expects the board to authorize a bid, Daniel, the system’s point person on the project, replied, “I’m not going to try to speculate what the board’s going to do. We’ll wait and see what the board decides to do.”
Texas A&M University System regents voted last month to pursue the Los Alamos contract, and the University of California is also expected to submit a proposal. The lab is part of the portfolio overseen by Energy Secretary Rick Perry, a former governor of Texas and a graduate of A&M.
Los Alamos is currently operated by Los Alamos National Security LLC, a consortium of the University of California, the Bechtel Corp., BWXT Government Group Inc. and the URS unit of AECOM. The National Nuclear Security Administration signaled in late 2015 that the consortium would lose its contract, which expires Sept. 30, because it failed to earn high enough performance reviews.
The UT System, partnering with Lockheed Martin Corp., lost a bid to operate Los Alamos in 2005. The system later joined with the A&M System, the University of New Mexico, the Boeing Co. and Battelle Memorial Institute in a failed bid to run Sandia National Laboratories, also based in New Mexico.
Unlike those earlier bids, the UT System would be the lead player if it lands the Los Alamos contract, although it likely would line up industry and perhaps other university partners.
Operating Los Alamos, which has more than 11,000 employees and a $2.5 billion budget, would be a feather in the UT System’s national-service hat, as well as a platform for research opportunities benefiting students and faculty members. But it would also pose risks to the system’s reputation if things don’t go well.
Mishandling of plutonium at Los Alamos and other safety concerns prompted a suspension of some plutonium-related work in 2013 for an extensive safety reassessment. Full operations resumed in the summer of 2016.
On other matters Thursday, the UT regents:
• Discussed a proposal to collaborate with the A&M System, Baylor College of Medicine and the Texas Medical Center to establish a joint campus at the medical center in Houston to focus on life sciences research. Tucker said system officials would study legal, financial and other aspects before a possible regents’ vote on the initiative Nov. 27. The A&M System’s board signed on earlier this week, and Baylor College of Medicine’s board previously agreed to participate.
• Discussed behind closed doors the value of the system’s Brackenridge Tract in West Austin, including Lions Municipal Golf Course, as well as legal issues related to the property’s use. UT-Austin President Gregory L. Fenves and Mayor Steve Adler have expressed hope that an agreement can be reached to preserve the city-operated course and allow the university to realize enhanced value from some of its other real estate holdings, including other parts of the tract.