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.

Emily Merz: UC's history with Los Alamos lab, bid to maintain control lacks transparency
By Emily Merz

This post was updated June 5 at 12:42 p.m.

Bruins may think that the state of nuclear weapons in the world is a far-removed topic that doesn't affect them.

That's far from the case.

Since the creation of nuclear weapons themselves, the University of California has had a direct stake in the management of U.S. nuclear weapons.

Starting with the Manhattan Project, when nuclear weapons were first created, the UC operated the Los Alamos National Labratory, a nuclear laboratory located in New Mexico that stores the U.S. Department of Energy's nuclear weapons, conducts research about nuclear weapons and security, and manages nuclear materials.

The UC operates LANL today in collaboration with Bechtel Corporation, which manufactures machinery and operates other national labs. The two organizations, along with AECOM, and BWX Technologies form Los Alamos National Security, LLC, a type of private corporation, which now oversees the management of LANL.

And the UC may be able to continue its operation of LANL for the next 10 years – that is, if the Department of Energy approves the UC's renewed bid for management. The winner will be announced this month.

The question remains why a public university system would operate a nuclear laboratory in the first place. When the UC started managing the plant in 1943, many administrators were unsure exactly what its faculty were doing at the lab or what the purpose of managing the lab was.

The UC's bid to maintain control over LANL is especially bewildering in light of the UC's track record of countless cases of mismanagement of the lab.

The UC does not view it this way. Stephanie Beechem, a UC spokesperson, said the University is "strongly committed to Los Alamos’ scientific and technological excellence, driving the lab’s culture of operational excellence, and ensuring the continued high quality and integrity of its critical national security missions."

But there's no clear benefit for the UC, a public university, to operate the lab beyond the approximately $2 billion per year contract to operate the plant.

The UC's inability to acknowledge that it is incompetent at operating LANL is a reason why the lab has continued to be poorly managed for years.

During the 1980s and 1990s, numerous scientists and staff at the lab were fired after expressing concerns about lab management. During that period, it became evident the lab disposed of toxic contaminants at more than 1,800 waste dump sites near the lab, costing the facility $2 billion in cleanup.

In 1999, a scientist at the lab was accused of 59 accounts of mishandling nuclear secrets and for releasing classified documents. He went to prison for nine months as a result.

The UC hired security experts to examine the lab in 2000 in response to growing concerns about lab safety from the Department of Energy. But the University fired them when they discovered that it was misusing lab funds to purchase a Ford Mustang and personal computers for staff.

But the mismanagement didn't end there.

In 2004, the lab's director had to shut down the lab for seven months after incorrectly assuming computer disks with classified information about the lab went missing. In the same year, an intern suffered loss of vision because of an accident during which a laser shot into her eye.

In 2003, the Department of Energy and then-President George W. Bush opened the operation of LANL to competitive bidding from other firms, resulting in the UC-Bechtel Corporation collaboration, in hopes of improving the management of the lab.

The UC's creation of an LLC to manage the plant was suspicious. Once the UC and Bechtel Corporation formed Los Alamos National Security, LLC, the Department of Energy increased the contract it paid the LLC from $8 million in 2005 to $80 million in 2010 and tripled the number of staff receiving salaries of over $200,000 – an oddly convenient pay increase.

The lab treated nuclear waste like normal toxic waste in 2014, shipping 55 gallons of it 330 miles west to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad, New Mexico. The container burst, exposing more than 20 workers to radioactive radioactive contamination just four years ago.

The same year, the lab reported 400 counts of violations of its state hazardous waste permit.

These are all just the most publicly known accounts of mismanagement.

In light of so many cases of mismanagement, the most glaring issue is that the UC has not publicly answered crucial questions about why it wants to operate the plant. The UC never explained why it created a for-profit LLC to manage the plant. It has not expressed to The Bruin why it, as a public university system, should have a hand in the state of nuclear weapons in the U.S. And it has not addressed its past wrongdoings such as firing investigators, misappropriating funds for personal use or mishandling nuclear materials and secrets.

Most concerningly, the University has not indicated how it will alter its leadership style to prevent such serious violations from happening again if it gets the bid again. Such a management record certainly does not reflect well on the UC, which runs the lab for scientific research and enterprise reasons. The UC has sowed doubt about its competence at the highest levels of government.

While the Department of Energy debates over the bid to manage LANL, the UC needs to address these unanswered questions in the name of transparency.

The UC has a responsibility to be on the frontier of scientific research as one of the leading research university systems in the nation. It also must answer to Californians as a public institution of the state.

Mismanaging nuclear materials in another state, however, doesn't seem to fit either of those responsibilities.

Correction: The original version of this article contained several errors. The article incorrectly spelled Stephanie Beechem’s name. The article also incorrectly stated the Los Alamos National Security, LLC, is comprised of two institutions that jointly operate the Los Alamos National Lab. In fact, it is comprised of four institutions.