Regents vote to compete to run the Los Alamos lab despite safety concerns

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Photo Credit: Melanie Westfall | Daily Texan Staff

The UT System will officially compete to run the historic Los Alamos Nuclear Laboratory.

UT System Board of Regents voted 4-3 to submit a management proposal for the nuclear research laboratory at a Monday meeting. The lab in New Mexico was first established under the Manhattan Project to create an atomic bomb but is renowned for research in nuclear weapons, energy and environment management. Looking to expand in national security and nuclear research, the UT System has had interest in running the lab since 2005.

But the University of California System, which has helped to run the lab for more than 70 years, won the contract in 2005. When the Department of Energy announced the end of the current management contract, the Board of Regents encouraged Deputy Chancellor David Daniel and UT-Austin President Gregory Fenves to pursue the management contract during August board meetings.

“The important work at LANL is aligned with our research goals and priorities across the University,” Fenves said in an August press release.

In order to compete against the University of California and the Texas A&M Systems, the UT System began investing $4.5 million to research and craft a proposal to run the lab with a corporate partner, who has yet to be announced.

The regents were originally expected to discuss and approve a management proposal at an earlier November meeting but delayed the vote until this Monday. During the Monday vote, Regents Janiece Longoria, Steve Hicks and Kevin P. Eltife cited concerns about the financial and reputational risks of running the lab before voting no. UT-Austin officials and researchers had also voiced concerns, Longoria said.

“I just really believe that this is outside our core mission,” Longoria said during the meeting. “The reputational risks in the case of a catastrophe will be borne by UT-Austin and the System.”

Longoria, who voiced the most concerns, brought up the lab’s past failures to comply with the Department of Energy’s safety regulations.

In 2013, the lab was shut down after reports surfaced that the lab failed to take safety precautions with nuclear materials, according to the Washington Post. Since then, the lab has seen increased scrutiny by government agencies and the public.

Even with the Department of Energy’s compensation for running the lab, managing a lab with safety issues could become too costly for the UT System and strain resources for its 14 institutions, Longoria said. She added that if experienced UC System administrators have continued facing safety issues, the UT System would probably face similar risks.

Despite these concerns, Regents Jeffery Hildebrand, Paul Foster, David Beck and Ernest Aliseda voiced support for the UT System to run the lab, emphasizing that the benefits of operating the lab outweighed the risks.

“It will benefit not just the System but our many institutions, including the flagship at UT-Austin,” Beck said.

Foster added that the UT System could help address some of the lab’s previous safety concerns.

“I think the failures of Los Alamos cited by Longoria actually present an opportunity for UT-Austin to shine,” Foster said.