Texas A&M University System regents voted unanimously Thursday to authorize the system to compete for a contract to run Los Alamos National Laboratory, the birthplace of the nation’s nuclear arsenal and part of the portfolio overseen by Energy Secretary Rick Perry, a graduate of A&M.
The action by the A&M System Board of Regents came exactly a month after University of Texas System regents authorized their system to spend up to $4.5 million to prepare a bid to operate Los Alamos.
In a twist with a political dimension, A&M Regent Tony Buzbee, a lawyer from Houston, will serve as the Board of Regents’ point person on Los Alamos. Buzbee was Perry’s lead counsel in successfully fighting the former governor’s indictment on abuse of power charges stemming from his 2013 threat to withhold money for the Public Integrity Unit of the Travis County district attorney’s office. M. Katherine Banks, A&M’s vice chancellor and dean of engineering, is the overall point person on the Los Alamos initiative.
The lab, which is tucked into the mountains of northern New Mexico, 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. Federal officials signaled in late 2015 that the consortium would lose its $2.2 billion contract, which expires Sept. 30 next year, because it failed to earn high enough performance reviews.
The Energy Department’s National Nuclear Security Administration issued a draft request for proposals in July and is expected to issue a final request soon. The safety administration is a “semi-autonomous agency” within the Energy Department, according to its website. The administration was established by Congress and is led by Undersecretary for Nuclear Security Frank G. Klotz, a retired Air Force lieutenant general.
Besides the UT System and the A&M System, the University of New Mexico has said it is interested in operating the lab, and other universities or industrial concerns are likely to enter the fray as well.
Los Alamos was operated for decades solely by the University of California after one of its physicists, J. Robert Oppenheimer, led development of “Fat Man” and “Little Boy,” the atomic bombs that were dropped on Japan during World War II.
Operating the lab, which has more than 11,000 employees, is something of a package deal that includes prestige, national service and a legacy attached to an institution charged with ensuring that the nation’s nuclear weapons would work as intended, without actually detonating them.
There are pitfalls as well. Mistakes can damage the lab operator’s reputation. Mishandling of plutonium 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.
The A&M regents, meeting at Tarleton State University in Stephenville, about 150 miles north of Austin, did not discuss the Los Alamos matter during the public portion of their meeting Thursday. Earlier in the day, they met behind closed doors to discuss that and other matters.
The regents’ vote authorizes the system “to take all actions necessary to develop and submit a proposal for the management and operation” of the lab. “Right now, we’re in the exploration phase to determine if we should move forward,” Banks told the American-Statesman.
“What we want to do is determine how we can contribute to ensure the laboratory’s successful,” she said. “It fits our history of public service as well. And we have very strong expertise in nuclear engineering and science.”
The regents did not set aside any funds for the initiative at this juncture, and Banks said she wouldn’t expect any such allocation to be as much as $4.5 million.
Asked about Buzbee’s role, she called him “a strategic thinker, an excellent lawyer. His selection is based on those characteristics.” Like Perry, Buzbee graduated from A&M and served in its Corps of Cadets.
Banks said the A&M System “reached out to UT several times” regarding a possible collaboration. “We received no response.” On the other hand, she said, “This could double the chances that the state of Texas is represented on the winning team.”