The team composed of the Texas A&M University System, the University of California System and Battelle Memorial Institute received the official go-ahead from the federal government Monday to begin a nearly four-month transition leading to operation of Los Alamos National Laboratory on Nov. 1.
The federally owned lab in the mountains of New Mexico is a major part of the nation’s nuclear weapons complex. The A&M-UC-Battelle team, known as Triad National Security LLC, beat out the University of Texas System and other bidders to win a contract that includes a five-year base with five one-year options. The estimated value of the deal is $2.5 billion annually.
The A&M System said in a statement that it brings expertise in nuclear engineering and safety measures, as well as workforce development, to the enterprise.
“We are committed to working with our partners to enhance safety and security at the lab while advancing its world-class science and executing its vital missions,” A&M System Chancellor John Sharp said. “Obviously, this is a huge affirmation of the nationally recognized quality of research, teaching and national service at Texas A&M.”
The University of California, which has had a major role in running Los Alamos since it was established during World War II to produce the atomic bombs dropped on Japan, also sounded a note of pride. “The U.S. Department of Energy’s decision is a testament to UC’s historic commitment to scientific and technological excellence at Los Alamos,” UC President Janet Napolitano said.
The lab nonetheless has had its share of safety lapses in recent years, such as workers mishandling plutonium and improperly packaging a drum of radioactive waste that burst after it was shipped to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, N.M., leading to a three-year shutdown of the plant. The National Nuclear Security Administration, a semi-autonomous arm of the U.S. Department of Energy that oversees the lab, has said that the new operator must foster “organizational culture change.”
Triad announced that Thomas Mason, a Battelle executive and a former director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory, will be the director of Los Alamos. Mason, 53, called the appointment “a tremendous honor.”
Los Alamos is a massive operation, with more than 11,000 workers and 1,000 buildings scattered across 22,000 acres. Its primary mission is to ensure that the country’s nuclear weapons will work as intended, without actually detonating them. It also conducts research involving national security, space exploration, renewable energy, medicine, nanotechnology and supercomputing.
Triad has yet to say whether it intends to pay tens of millions of dollars a year in gross receipts taxes — money that goes to the state and to local and tribal governments in the area. If Triad operates as a nonprofit, it presumably could avoid paying such taxes or elect to make contributions in lieu of taxes. The current operator of the lab, Los Alamos National Security LLC, is a for-profit enterprise and therefore required under state law to pay the taxes.
“There are several parties reviewing the issue, and we will provide an update as soon as possible,” Triad said in a statement.
Triad has lined up two integrated subcontractors, Fluor and Huntington Ingalls Industries, and three small-business subcontractors, Longenecker & Associates, Merrick-SMSI and TechSource.