Saturday, March 05, 2005

UC's lab prospects still dicey

Posted on Sun, Mar. 06, 2005

UC's lab prospects still dicey

By Betsy Mason


With the countdown to the Los Alamos Lab contract competition likely to begin this month, the University of California is in the spotlight on several fronts.

Though UC still has not officially decided to bid for the New Mexico nuclear weapons lab that it has managed for more than 60 years, the University's chances of winning the contract seem to be getting simultaneously better and worse. But the worse appears to be outpacing the better.

The deadline for a second round of comments on the draft request for proposals for the Los Alamos contract was Friday. A final request is expected by the end of the month, after which bidders will have 90 days to respond. The Department of Energy hopes to award the new contract by Oct. 1.

On the plus side for UC, several major players who had expressed interest in managing the lab have bowed out of the competition, including Lockheed Martin, the University of Texas and Texas A&M. This leaves UC looking like the front-runner.

Also in UC's favor, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson is supporting the university, as is the New Mexico legislature.

But the list of potential obstacles for UC seems to be growing faster. Difficulty finding an industry partner, the revelation that highly publicized missing classified computer disks never existed, recent changes to the proposed contract by the Energy Department and talk of replacing the lab's director, could all spell trouble.

The university is in ongoing discussions with potential partners, Gerald Parsky, chairman of the UC Board of Regents, told the Times in an email Friday.

"The University recognizes that there are some areas in which we are particularly strong, specifically science and technology. There are other areas that an industrial partner could certainly help us to enhance, including business practices, the handling of hazardous materials, environmental matters and security issues," Parsky wrote. "Clearly these are where we have seen some of the challenges at (Los Alamos)."

However, the field of desirable industry partners shrunk in size and stature when Lockheed Martin decided not to compete. The company, considered by many to be the strongest potential partner, was rumored to be in talks with both UC and the University of Texas.

"The decision was one of resources," said Lockheed spokeswoman Wendy Owen. "We wanted to stay firmly focused on what we are doing right now."

Some big companies still may be interested, including Northrop Grumman, Bechtel and the Washington Group; a whole host of smaller companies have expressed interest as well.

But cementing a partnership may be much easier said than done. One reason the University of Texas cited for pulling out was an inability to find a workable partnership after months of discussions with potential partners.

At a regents' meeting in November, Parsky said that UC would want to be in overall charge in any partnership they might form.

But Regent Sherry Lansing worried about keeping a partner from meddling with the scientific management, likening the situation to the separation of church and state. "That is scary because they overlap," she said.

And Robert Foley, UC vice president for laboratory administration, said that talks with potential industry partners had broken down over who would be top dog.

"We've had two walk away just on that point," Foley said. "They say, 'If we are going to team up with the University of California to bid for Los Alamos, UC must get a minority part and we must have the lead.' So we have walked away from these discussions or they have walked away from us."

There may be other reasons UC might have trouble finding a partner, said Marylia Kelley, executive director of Tri-Valley Communities against a Radioactive Environment, a lab watchdog group that plans to bid for the lab contract along with Nuclear Watch of New Mexico. "I think the University of California is having trouble finding partners because its management of Los Alamos has been so dysfunctional," she said.

Another potential setback for a UC bid came two weeks ago, when the National Nuclear Security Administration announced proposed changes to the management contract. The new rules include a requirement that bidders form a separate corporation to carry out the contract -- a move that could mean even if UC wins, Los Alamos workers would not be UC employees, a prestigious academic affiliation that has helped attract top scientists.

Another change would be a standalone pension plan for Los Alamos employees, who would consequently lose access to UC's generous retirement benefits, another big draw for recruiting.

On Thursday, Senators Pete Domenici, R-N.M., and Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., confronted Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman Energy during a Natural Resources Committee hearing saying the changes "could be construed as being unfairly calibrated to make it very difficult for UC to get the bid," Domenici said in a statement after the hearing.

The National Nuclear Security Administration also raised the management compensation from 0.6 percent of the lab's $2 billion annual budget to 3 percent, possibly to attract more interest from industry.

Trouble for UC may also be brewing again at the lab. After two classified computer disks were reported missing at the lab last summer, director Pete Nanos shut down all activity at the lab for months and fired five people and punished seven more. Investigations recently concluded the disks never existed and now two of the punished employees are saying they were used as scapegoats. And some are calling for Nanos himself to be fired on a blog set up by Los Alamos lab employees.

In response to questions about Nanos' future, UC spokesman Chris Harrington said, "As strong managers, we are continuously evaluating our senior management team and will continue to do so in the future."

All the turmoil surrounding the bid has some, including Domenici, speculating that the Energy Department could have an empty mailbox on the day bids are due.

If no one bids on the contract, it might indicate that folks are smart enough to figure out that the current management split between DOE/NNSA and the winning company is totally unworkable.

Bodman should look at the way NNSA operates. After all, he does have the right to replace Brooks, doesn't he?
Nanos first. _Then_ Brooks, then Foley.
Saving LANL: Nanos and Cobb should resign

It is gratifying to see the strong support from Senators Domenici and Bingaman for Los Alamos, especially regarding the benefits package aspects of the draft RFP, which have rightfully caused so much concern among the LANL workforce. With the Senators’ strong public support it now seems more likely that this aspect of what ails LANL will have a satisfactory outcome.

But this alone will not solve the morale problem and stop the brain drain at LANL, which are eroding the Lab’s ability to solve National Security related science and technology problems and fulfill its mission. People are leaving the Lab as a direct result of the turmoil and climate of fear that Director Nanos and his senior management team have inflicted in the name of “safety and security”. The cost to the taxpayer has been tremendous, while doing little if anything to actually address the real safety and security concerns that staff have repeatedly pointed out to management since long before Nanos’ July ’04 shutdown. Nanos’ and Cobb’s reckless actions have inhibited the ability to perform technical work, stifled creativity, damaged relations with sponsors, degraded the quality of the work experience, smeared the reputations of the organization and its staff, disrupted careers and projects, and caused the Lab to lose its focus on its National Security mission.

There is one action that would go a long way to restoring morale and solving the staff retention problem at LANL: G. P. Nanos and D. Cobb should reflect on their mistakes and take the honorable action of resigning promptly. They have failed to live up to even the most basic principles of leadership and have long since lost the confidence and support of the technical staff. By resigning now they will help to stem the outflow of valuable talent from the Lab, and save UC the embarrassment of going down in history as “the contractor that destroyed Los Alamos”. Whoever takes over will have their work cut out to repair the damage that Nanos and Cobb have done to this fine organization’s capabilities and reputation. Hopefully, UC can find a well-qualified new leader dedicated to that difficult task, who will be worthy of the staff’s trust and support. Senators Domenici and Bingaman could help by encouraging Nanos and Cobb to reach the right decision, while UC could surely find a “promotion” that would remove Nanos from Los Alamos. With the prompt appointment of new leadership capable of defining a clear strategic vision for the future, it may yet be possible for UC to save LANL.
A promotion within the UC system for Nanos would not necessarily be the answer if, as the rumor mill has said, that promotion would be to oversee LANL's transition from UC to a new contractor. With his attitude towards LANL staff, who would want him in that position?
Promotion? I'm sorry, nothing less than an outright firing of Nanos would be acceptable. Even the customary "asking for his resignation" is too dignified for one who has screwed up so badly.

Anything even remotely resembling a reward for casually flushing a billion taxpayer dollars down the drain, over an imagined incident, would be an outrage.
Let's get real. There will be bidders on the contract. It is even possible that UC could play a subordinate role to a partner.

When the new contractor comes in, unless they are restricted, they could reduce staff by 25% and increase productivity at the same time. It is a simple matter of instilling some work ethic.

After all those that are threatening to quit have left this will be a much better place to work. Only those that want to get with the program will be here.
The only restriction will likely be that staff reductions cannot come from "Protected Classes".

If you are unclear on who is, and who is not, in a "Protected Class," I suggest a conference with your HR representative.
Actually, it's easier than that.

You are in a protected class if you are a member of a group mentioned on one of the banners hanging out over the LANL entry wall throughout the year.
No you're not. There is no such thing as a protected class at LANL. As the winds shift, so do the fortunes of those who work there.

(Been on a banner, ended up on the trash heap.)
I'll stand by the "protected classes" at LANL comment. I'll use the Welch Report as the starting point since that's the phrase used there.
I'll have to retract my 9:08 pm comment since I dug up my copy of the Welch Report and do not see the term used in the report. I can only conclude that I saw the term used elsewhere.

In fact, I'll go along with you and agree there are no "protected classes" at LANL, which is the ideal.
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