A group that includes Texas A&M University was awarded a lucrative contract to oversee the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico on Friday, beating out a competing bid led by the University of Texas system. The group’s bid was chosen by the U.S. Department of Energy, which is headed by A&M alum Rick Perry.
“We are committed to building on the legacy of world-class research, unparalleled innovation, and service to public good that have been the hallmark of the laboratory since it was founded in 1943,” A&M chancellor John Sharp said in a press release. A&M’s bidding group, a limited liability company called Triad National Security, includes the Battelle Memorial Institute and the University of California.
The group will inherit a facility that has long served as one of the nation’s most important nuclear weapons research centers, but has recently been marred by major workplace safety issues. The University of California has been involved in managing Los Alamos for nearly 75 years, most recently partnering with defense contractor Bechtel to run the lab after being awarded a contract in 2006. But the federal government decided in 2015 not to renew the group’s contract after its expiration in September 2017, following a series of federal investigations and performance evaluations that revealed a pattern of serious accidents and worker health and safety violations, which resulted in a total of $110 million in fines and lost performance bonuses, according to ProPublica.
There was much hand-wringing by the University of California over putting together a new bid for the Los Alamos contract. During a September meeting of the Board of Regents, university regents placed much of the blame for Los Alamos’s problems over the past decade on Bechtel, and decided to move forward with a new bid with a different private partner. Bechtel, of course, did not like that. Shortly after the meeting, Bechtel president Barbara Rusinko sent a letter to UC president Janet Napolitano, responding to each point of criticism levied by the regents—and objecting to their harsh criticism of Rick Perry.
According to the letter, which has been obtained by Texas Monthly, UC regent Richard Blum was concerned about the outcome of the looming bidding war being affected by the political leanings of each bidding group, explaining that they decided to bring Bechtel into their 2006 bid because “they were a Republican group.” Blum also had some unflattering comments about Perry. “Now here we go again,” Blum said at the meeting, according to the letter sent by Bechtel. “We have the former governor of Texas who couldn’t remember that there was an Energy Department that he wanted to get rid of when he ran for president, so my guess is that his understanding of anything about this is probably beyond clueless.”
After UC and Bechtel broke up, Bechtel connected with Purdue University to form a competing bid. There were whispers early in the bidding process that A&M and UT were weighing the benefits of teaming up for a Texas-centric bid aimed at pleasing Perry, but the heated rivals couldn’t make it work and instead went forward with separate bids.
A&M helps run a similar but smaller lab, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, with UC and Battelle (and Bechtel, too). Given the two university systems’ collaborative history, combined with A&M’s conservativeness to balance out UC’s liberal leanings, their bidding group for Los Alamos made for an obvious alliance.
The A&M Board of Regents voted unanimously last year to pursue a bid. UT, however, was less enthusiastic. The system’s Board of Regents narrowly voted 4-3 in favor of competing for the contract, with opponents citing the facility’s questionable safety record and noting that operating a nuclear weapons facility doesn’t necessarily align with the university system’s mission, the Austin American-Statesman reported in November. It’s unclear whether the board’s reluctance affected the outcome of UT’s bid, but it probably didn’t help. The UT system had also submitted a bid for Los Alamos in 2005, partnering with Lockheed Martin, but they lost out then too. “We offer our best wishes to the NNSA’s chosen contractor and thank our Board of Regents and numerous others who supported this endeavor,” UT deputy chancellor David Daniel said in a statement, according to the Houston Chronicle.
The Los Alamos contract is guaranteed over five years, with one-year renewal options potentially extending the deal for a total of ten years. According to a press release from the DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration, the “estimated value” of the contract is $2.5 billion per year. The 35-square-mile facility outside Santa Fe employs about 12,000 people.
“Today’s announcement charges the Texas A&M University System with the management of one of the world’s premier laboratories in the areas of defense, nuclear weapons and nuclear nonproliferation,” Governor Abbott said in a press release. “The award links Texas with one of the world’s premier R&D institutions, and I am proud of the expanded contributions our state will make towards our nation’s defense. I commend Chancellor Sharp and the Texas A&M University System for securing this contract that will provide significant opportunities for skilled workers trained in Texas to make lasting contributions to our national security.”