The DOE Shuts Down the Labs


While the Department of Energy (DOE) shuts down nuclear labs, and a Senator introduces a bill to end the University of California’s management of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, a plan is emerging for Texas and New Mexico universities to take over the beleaguered Los Alamos weapons lab.

In early July, Los Alamos lab officials in New Mexico revealed that computer disks containing classified information were missing. This has lead to unprecedented closure of DOE nuclear facilities nationwide to implement computer security measures.

Senator Wayne Allard, R-Colorado, last week introduced legislation to require the DOE to terminate its contract with the University of California and appoint an interim manager until a new contractor is selected. UC has managed Los Alamos since 1943.

Now a plan is being presented, in bits and pieces and as a new idea, for Texas and New Mexico universities to partner and run Los Alamos; but the plan has existed since the mid-1990s.

Last year, the DOE decided, to open to competition Los Alamos lab’s management contract. In February, the University of Texas announced possible interest. A number of corporations have also expressed their desire. Texas A&M only announced its interest last week.

UT officials have been coy. They’re willing to partner, but won’t say with whom. Following Texas A&M’s announcement, a UT vice chancellor told the Austin American Statesman there have been no talks between UT and Texas A&M about Los Alamos.

Texas A&M officials, however, began immediately speculating about partnerships with UT, the University of New Mexico, and other New Mexico universities.

The Bryan-College Station Eagle reported on a Texas A&M vice chancellor admitting that Texas A&M and University of Texas presidents have talked about forming a partnership to run the lab.

The Albuquerque Tribune reported that Texas A&M is serious about partnering with New Mexico’s universities, including New Mexico Tech, New Mexico State University, and the University of New Mexico.

None of this is new.

This Texas-New Mexico university partnership plan appeared in December 1995, when then UT Chancellor William Cunningham wrote the DOE and said a group of universities is interested "in ascertaining . . . the proper procedure whereby we may compete for the contract to operate [Los Alamos]." The proposed consortium included the University of Texas, Texas A&M, and New Mexico State University.

UT and Texas A&M nuclear weapons work goes back to 1993 when the two, with Texas Tech, created the Amarillo National Research Center for Plutonium to advise the DOE, the state of Texas, and the Pantex nuclear weapons plant.

Leading that consortium was Dale Klein, then a UT Austin mechanical engineering professor, and now the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Defense Programs.

In 1995 Klein became a UT associate vice chancellor just before the university notified the DOE of its interest in managing Los Alamos. Klein must have played a role in crafting this early Texas-New Mexico university plan. He likely maintains interest today.

The DOE did not compete the Los Alamos contract in the mid-1990s. Texas universities have had nine years to refine their plan.

Whether Klein and other Texas advocates in Washington have a hand in decisions next year on the lab’s management depends on the November election outcome. A Kerry victory will bring new leadership to the DOD, the DOE, and the National Nuclear Security Administration that has a decision-making power over future management.

Regardless of the election outcome, Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, will continue to strongly support Texas universities. She will likely back this Texas-New Mexico university partnership plan to run Los Alamos.

Senator Pete Domenici, R-New Mexico, may also support this partnership. Although Domenici doesn’t support Sen. Allard’s bill to terminate the University of California’s contract, he has become critical of UC’s management.

The security crisis at the Los Alamos National Laboratory is providing those with long-term interests in its management with an opportunity. The timing couldn’t be better.

By advancing the Texas-New Mexico partnership plan in a piece meal fashion the universities are generating mystique about cooperation between "rival" Texas institutions. More attention is being paid to which universities will work together, rather than to whether universities should be developing nuclear weapons.

The University of Texas should stop pretending it doesn’t know what it’s doing and admit it’s been talking to Texas A&M about Los Alamos for a long time.

As a nation we should ask whether we still need to research, develop, and produce nuclear weapons, and whether it’s a university’s business to do so.

STEFAN WRAY, MA, is a University of Texas graduate, activist, writer, and filmmaker in Austin, Texas and as Co-Director of Iconmedia, is working on a documentary about the Los Alamos National Laboratory, called The WMDs Are In New Mexico. He works with UTNukeFree.org. He can be reached at: stefwray@io.com

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