The University of Texas System and the Texas A&M University System will learn by the end of May, if not sooner, the outcome of their competing bids to operate a major federal nuclear weapons laboratory.
The UT System has at least one undisclosed corporate partner in its proposal to run Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. The A&M System is partnered with the University of California System and likely with one or more companies.
Purdue University in Indiana has confirmed that it also submitted a bid, and news reports say it has teamed with San Francisco-based engineering and construction company Bechtel Corp.
The lab’s current operator is Los Alamos National Security LLC, a private consortium of the University of California, Bechtel, BWXT Government Group Inc. and the URS unit of engineering design firm AECOM. The National Nuclear Security Administration signaled in late 2015 that the group would lose its contract, which expires at the end of September, because it failed to earn high enough performance reviews.
The security administration, a semi-autonomous arm of the U.S. Energy Department, estimates the cost of running the lab for 10 years at more than $23 billion. Bidders were required to propose fixed and award fees that could amount to millions of dollars a year. The administration says the government “is more concerned with obtaining a superior technical and management proposal than making an award at the lowest evaluated cost/price.”
Federal officials have not said exactly when they will announce the winning team. However, the government said in a question-and-answer document that it “is committed to ensuring a contract is awarded in time to allow a four month transition before the current contract expires on September 30, 2018.” That would mean a contract would have to be awarded by the end of May.
Secrecy has shrouded much of the bidding and review process. There could be other bidders that have not surfaced publicly, and the government has not disclosed the identities of any bidders.
UT System officials have said they established a limited liability company and a corporation as part of the system’s bid, but they have declined to release the names of those entities or any other information about them. In response to an open records request by the American-Statesman, the system sought and received backing from the state attorney general’s office for its position to not release the information.
Filings to establish such entities are public records, but the university argued that release of the information would undermine the system’s bidding and negotiating position. State law includes an exception for disclosure of “information that, if released, would give advantage to a competitor or bidder.”
In granting the system’s request, the attorney general’s office cited a 2015 ruling by the Texas Supreme Court involving the Boeing Co. and the Port Authority of San Antonio in which the court said the test was whether knowing another bidder’s information “would be an advantage, not whether it would be a decisive advantage.”
The UT System Board of Regents voted 4-3 in November to pursue the Los Alamos contract. Regent Rad Weaver was not on the line for the meeting by telephone, and Chairwoman Sara Martinez Tucker did not vote. Tucker told the Statesman later that if it had been a tie vote or if she were not head of the board, she would have voted to go after the contract, citing opportunities for public service, research, student internships and management fees.
A&M regents voted unanimously in October to compete for the contract, which is part of the portfolio overseen by Energy Secretary Rick Perry, an A&M graduate.