UC, Texas A&M might bid jointly on LANL

School systems - each with critical ties to nuke work - reportedly teaming up for management contract

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When the University of California submits its bid to continue managing of Los Alamos National Laboratory, the public institution from the biggest, bluest state in the country might have an eye-grabbing partner: Texas A&M University.

The two large university systems, one from a solid Democratic state and the other from the largest Republican-led state, are planning to join forces in a proposal to manage the national lab for the next decade, the Austin American-Statesman reported Saturday, citing unnamed sources.

University officials would not confirm the partnership to The New Mexican, but the director of one lab watchdog group, who was unaware of the partnership, said that while it might seem like the two university systems make "strange bedfellows," a Cal-Texas A&M partnership would be a good fit in many ways.

"It would make sense politically, certainly," Greg Mello of the Los Alamos Study Group said in an interview with The New Mexican earlier this week. "And it would seem to make sense from a research perspective. Both schools have a little different niche in that regard."

Texas A&M, a land-grant college system with 11 campuses and a flagship in College Station, Texas, also gives the University of California, the lab's operator in some form since its inception in 1943, a chance to move ahead with a fresh partner that can bring operational success in areas where it has been criticized: nuclear safety, hazardous materials handling, mechanics and logistics.

Another known bidder is the University of Texas System, a consortium of 14 campuses with a flagship in Austin.

The UT System Board of Regents approved moving ahead with a bid at its November meeting.

There may be other bidders as well - General Dynamics, IBM, MAG Aerospace, Bechtel and dozens of other firms have registered for site visits to Los Alamos, according to a website for the National Nuclear Security Administration, but there is no information about whether they are acting alone or in partnership with others.

The winning proposal to manage Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque was awarded to a subsidiary of Honeywell in December 2016. The 10-year contract is valued at $2.6 billion.

Bidders for the management contract at Los Alamos are expected to spend between $4 million and $5 million to prepare their packages for review, with a decision from a review panel of the National Nuclear Security Administration due by mid-2018. Formal proposals might never become public record, unless one of the parties appeals the final award.

There are most certainly industry partners involved with some of the university teams, as is the case with Los Alamos National Security LLC, the current lab contractor, a consortium that includes UC, Bechtel, BWXT Government Group Inc. and URS.

"Once offers come in, the next communication you have out of the NNSA will be the award announcement," said Christopher Duran, the federal government's procurement manager for the Los Alamos bid.

University of California officials, who spent time in Northern New Mexico touting their long history and successes at the lab in late November, would not talk about potential alliances when contacted by The New Mexican.

"We can't confirm or discuss any of our bid partners," said UC's Gary Falle, a government relations specialist working with California regents.

A University of Texas regent said publicly that UT, a rival of A&M, has a "strong industry partner" but did not name the company.

The key person behind the Los Alamos effort at Texas A&M is M. Katherine Banks, a vice chancellor and dean of engineering who received a doctorate in civil and environmental engineering from Duke University. Texas A&M, with 16,900 students in its engineering department and 500 faculty members, was named the school with the top value in the U.S. for engineering by U.S. News and World Report.

Student enrollment is expected to grow to 25,000 in engineering alone by 2025, according to the school's website.

The system as a whole awarded 4,200 engineering degrees in 2016, and has the largest nuclear engineering program in the nation, with 420 undergraduate and graduate students, according to L. Diane Hurtado, senior adviser for strategic initiatives at the engineering school. The system also operates a nuclear accelerator facility and two nuclear research reactors, and it provides hazardous materials and terrorism training for more than 168,000 first responders annually.

Banks has strong industry ties and serves on the National Academy of Engineering and with the American Society for Engineering Education. Both Banks and Kimberly S. Budil, a physicist and vice president for national laboratories at the University of California, have been leading an effort to diversify the field of engineering and open up more opportunities for women.

Budil is the point person for the UC regents in regard to the Los Alamos lab, as well as Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, which UC also manages. She told the regents in September that "UC would bid for the LANL contract with a different group of private sector partners," according to board minutes.

She also told regents that the scrutiny and missteps at the lab have been on the operational side of the work, not on the research and development projects at the lab, where UC has shined.

"A key consideration in the potential bid for the LANL contract was to devise a partnership strategy that allows UC's area of unquestioned excellence to be supported by partners that could bring the necessary operational excellence," according to the minutes from the regents' meeting.

The Weapons Complex Monitor, a subscription-only newsletter, published an interview Friday with Marvin Adams, a professor of nuclear engineering at Texas A&M who came to Texas from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. He also oversees the Institute for National Security Education & Research, which merges research with graduate education -- both Sandia and Lawrence Livermore are partners in some of that work at the center in College Station.

In the interview with reporter Dan Leone, Adams acknowledged that no one can compete with UC for management experience of national defense labs, but he said that A&M has strong expertise that can serve the country.

"I will not claim that Texas A&M University has that kind of experience," he said. "But along with UC's record of experience, of course, comes a record of some failures. There have been failures, in particular, in operations. And now the question becomes, if you're a selection board, do you go with somebody who has experience but possibly questionable past performance? Or do you go with somebody who doesn't have that kind of directly relevant experience, but has better past performance in things that are arguably similar?

"Or do you perhaps find somebody, some team, that combines some operational experience that you would consider highly relevant with past performance that you consider to be excellent?"

Adams also declined to comment on any partnerships. "I can't tell you whether or not we've joined a team or if we did who the partners would be," he told the newsletter.

The president of the University of California System is Janet Napolitano, who visited LANL in August and talked with employees at the lab, as well as community leaders. Napolitano, who grew up in Albuquerque, is a former Democratic governor of Arizona and served as secretary of the Department of Homeland Security under President Barack Obama.

California has the largest congressional delegation in the country with 53 seats, 39 of them Democrats. The top Republican from the state is House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield, Calif.

Texas has 36 U.S. House members, 25 of them Republicans. One of its U.S. senators is Majority Whip John Cornyn of Houston. Rick Perry, a former Texas governor and presidential candidate, serves as President Donald Trump's secretary of the Department of Energy, which oversees the National Nuclear Security Administration.

The current LANL management contract expires Sept. 30, 2018.

Contact Bruce Krasnow at brucek@sfnewmexican.­com.

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