The University of Texas System Board of Regents on Monday authorized spending up to $4.5 million to prepare a bid to operate Los Alamos National Laboratory, a key part of the nation’s nuclear weapons complex.
The UT System board also elected Regent Sara Martinez Tucker to chair the board, which oversees 14 academic and health campuses. She succeeds Paul Foster, who has led the board through a sometimes-fractious four years.
The spending vote was not a surprise, as the board encouraged its staff last month to explore development of a bid. The regents still would have to vote again before submitting a proposal to the federal government to operate Los Alamos, which is tucked into the mountains of northern New Mexico.
The UT System, partnering with Lockheed Martin Corp., lost a bid to operate Los Alamos in 2005. The system later joined with the Texas A&M University 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.
Sandia and Los Alamos are part of the Energy Department, whose current secretary, Rick Perry, is a former Texas governor.
A bid to run Los Alamos, which has 11,200 employees and a $2.5 billion budget, would be a quest for the prestige, the opportunity for national service and the legacy that attach to the institution charged with ensuring that the nation’s nuclear weapons would work as intended, without actually detonating them.
Running the lab wouldn’t necessarily be pure glory, though, because mistakes could damage the UT System’s reputation.
Industry partners, and perhaps academic partners, would be part of the UT System team, and UT-Austin would have a key role, officials have said. But unlike the previous bids involving the UT System for Los Alamos and Sandia, the system would be the lead player if it goes forward with the initiative.
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 University of California was the first operator — and the only one for decades, ever since one of its physicists, J. Robert Oppenheimer, led the lab’s development of “Fat Man” and “Little Boy, ” the atomic bombs that were dropped on Japan during World War II.
Tucker’s ascendancy to chairwoman of the nine-member UT System board took effect at the conclusion of the meeting. She was appointed to a six-year term as a regent by Gov. Greg Abbott and confirmed by the Senate in 2015. Although by outward appearances the regents select their own leader, in actual practice the governor’s office signals the choice and the regents follow suit.
Tucker is a former undersecretary of the U.S. Department of Education, having been nominated to be the nation’s top higher education official by President George W. Bush and confirmed by the Senate. She oversaw all policies, programs and activities related to postsecondary education, vocational and adult education, and federal student aid.
UT System Chancellor Bill McRaven said it has been “a real honor” to work with Foster and predicted that Tucker would be a “fabulous” chairwoman.