UT regents vote 4-3 to pursue Los Alamos nuclear weapons lab contract


Highlights

It was a rare split vote for a board that normally is unanimous, especially on important matters.

Some regents see a chance to boost research and national service; others worry about financial, safety risks.

The governing board of the University of Texas System voted 4-3 Monday to authorize the system to compete for a federal contract to manage and operate Los Alamos National Laboratory, birthplace of the nation’s nuclear weapons program.

It was a rare split vote for a board that normally is unanimous, especially on important matters. Nonetheless, the regents who voted against making a bid — Kevin Eltife, Janiece Longoria and Steve Hicks — all said they respected the others’ position. Regents Ernest Aliseda, David Beck, Jeffery Hildebrand and Paul Foster voted in favor. Chairwoman Sara Martinez Tucker did not vote, and Regent Rad Weaver was not on the line for the meeting by telephone.

Still, it was apparent that the supporters and opponents held sharply divergent views.

“I think it represents an unbelievable opportunity for the state of Texas, for the UT System and for UT-Austin, as well as the other system institutions,” Foster said, citing hundreds of millions in potential research dollars and the national service involved.

Longoria said the safety and financial risks aren’t worth it, citing the lab’s checkered safety record in recent years. She said operating a nuclear weapons lab lies outside the system’s core mission and could even put its multibillion-dollar endowment “at risk in a catastrophic event.” She added that the system’s flagship, UT-Austin, wasn’t in favor of the initiative.

The split decision was something of a surprise inasmuch as the Board of Regents voted unanimously in September to let the system spend up to $4.5 million to prepare a bid to run the federally owned lab in the mountains of northern New Mexico.

Still, there had been an element of doubt regarding the regents’ leanings as a result of Tucker’s unexpected decision Nov. 9 to postpone a vote scheduled for that day.

System Chancellor Bill McRaven brushed off the implications of the split vote. “The larger the issue, the more you’re going to get divergent views,” he told the American-Statesman, adding that UT-Austin would undoubtedly play a role in running the lab if the system wins the contract.

Competition could be intense to run Los Alamos, where physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer led development of the atomic bombs that were dropped on Japan during World War II. Texas A&M University System regents voted last month to pursue the contract, and the University of California System voted to do so Nov. 16.

The University of California was the lab’s sole operator for decades and is currently part of a consortium running the lab. Federal officials signaled in late 2015 that the consortium would lose its contract, which will expire Sept. 30, 2018, because it failed to earn high enough performance reviews.

Proposals are due Dec. 11 at the National Nuclear Security Administration, an arm of the U.S. Department of Energy. Rick Perry, the former governor of Texas and a graduate of A&M, is secretary of the department.

The UT System tried once before to have a hand in running Los Alamos, partnering with Lockheed Martin Corp. but losing out in 2005. In that bid, the UT System would have played second fiddle to the military contractor. Now, the system wants to play first fiddle, although it is expected to line up industry partners and perhaps other university partners.

In other action, the regents stopped short of voting to collaborate in life sciences research in Houston with the A&M System, Baylor College of Medicine and the Texas Medical Center. The project, known as TMC3 and endorsed by Gov. Greg Abbott, would involve two UT System institutions, MD Anderson Cancer Center and the Health Science Center at Houston. The regents voted to instruct their staff to do more research on the proposal.



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