Atomic City
The current contract for the Los Alamos National Laboratory expires in September 2018, and the UC, which has been involved in the management of the lab since its inception in varying capacities, submitted a bid last year to manage the lab.

Community members contemplate UC history as Los Alamos bid decision approaches

This post was updated June 2 at 2:03 p.m.

The University of California unanimously supported a bid in January that, if granted, will allow the UC to regain full management control of the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

The UC system currently acts as the lead partner of the Los Alamos National Security, LLC, a coalition of private businesses including Bechtel National, Inc. and AECOM, two engineering firms, which has managed the laboratory since 2006.

However, the UC has been involved in the development and management of the lab since it was founded in 1943 and directly influences the development and maintenance of the atomic arsenal.

LANL was organized as part of the 1942 Manhattan Project in order to design nuclear weapons and build the first atomic bomb. In 1942, Leslie Groves, a United States Army Corps of Engineers officer who directed the Manhattan Project, decided to recruit the UC to help the laboratory more quickly attract talented scientists.

Siegfried Hecker, director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory from 1986 to 1997, said the UC’s management of the laboratory was a reason many talented scientists came to work there.

“The reason (Los Alamos) needed the University is (because) the University was able to bring the best talent to this enormous scientific endeavor,” said Hecker, who continued working at LANL until 2005. “They wanted something out of the box and different and thought the University could supply that.”

Joshua McGuffie, a graduate student in the UCLA history department researching scientific and nuclear history, said the Los Alamos laboratory played a significant role in nuclear bomb development in the United States.

“In terms of early Cold War research, Los Alamos was the only site dedicated to bomb development,” McGuffie said. “During the war, Los Alamos received uranium from (Oak Ridge, Tennessee) and plutonium from (Hanford, Washington). They built the first three bombs at the site at Los Alamos.”

McGuffie said the UC’s involvement in the construction of nuclear weapons was unparalleled.

“The UC is really tragically unique in as much as the entire United States nuclear arsenal was administered by the University of California,” McGuffie said.

William Frazer, professor emeritus of physics at UC Berkeley, said Groves met with the former UC President Robert Gordon Sproul in 1943 to designate Robert J. Oppenheimer, a former professor at UC Berkeley, as director of the lab.

“During the Cold War, everything that happened in Los Alamos was so classified and maintained this air of secrecy,” McGuffie said.

Frazer said the UC was initially drafted on behalf of the United States to oversee the laboratory as a national service.

“Neither Sproul, president of the University, nor his assistant Robert M. Underhill (were) told the nature of the services,” Frazer said. “But this was World War II, so it was their patriotic duty.”

The Atomic Energy Act of 1946 established civilian control over atomic weapon development and nuclear power management and offered the University an opportunity to reassess its management role within the laboratory, Frazer added.

Although the history of the UC and Los Alamos began initially as a war favor with the intention of creating nuclear weapons, that objective shifted in the 1980s when the laboratory began focusing on the maintenance of nuclear weapons and scientific research in general, McGuffie said.

The Chernobyl disaster of 1986 in the USSR and the 1992 nuclear weapons testing moratorium were major factors for this switch, McGuffie added.

The contract was renewed in 1987, with the UC as the sole contractor once again.

Hecker, who was director of the lab at the time, said the first responsibility of the lab was for the stewardship of nuclear weapons. The lab was also involved in civilian-related research, he added.

“In the health arena, Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore (National Laboratory) played the key role in the beginning of the human genome project,” Hecker said. “I became director in 1986 and over the next year or so in Washington trying to convince them that the human genome project was worthwhile.”

Through the UC, the laboratory was able to attract top talent and conduct notable research, such as the human genome project, Hecker added.

“I am not sure (the human genome research) could have happened without the University attracting that kind of talent that allowed us to do that kind of work,” Hecker said.

However, Adm. James D. Watkins, the former secretary of energy, informed then-UC President David P. Gardner in 1992 that the UC was going to have to compete for the labs for the first time. Gardner was against this idea, and informed Watkins that the UC had been participating in the contract because it had been asked to, and that it was not in this for the business. A day later, Watkins called Gardner back and said there would not be any competition on the bid, meaning the lab would not form a for-profit LLC with industrial partners.

The UC remained the single managing contractor until 2005, when Los Alamos opened up the contract for competition.

Hecker said he enjoyed working at Los Alamos under the sole management of the University. He added he left because he felt the director of the laboratory and employees of lab should be motivated primarily by the national interest and not by profit motives.

“The UC president told me, ‘You do what's right for this country.’ If it was for-profit, they would’ve asked, ‘What’s in it for us?’” Hecker said. “I would not have wound up at Los Alamos if it didn’t have the operative by the University of California.”

The UC is competing with other private and higher education entities, such as University of Texas at Austin, for the bid with Los Alamos. The decision was said to be announced sometime between April and May, but the DOE has not yet released the winner.

Correction: The original version of this article incorrectly quoted Joshua McGuffie.