Tuesday, April 05, 2005

We thought we were through with Los Alamos.

VIEWPOINT: Los Alamos lab bid redux
Daily Texan Editorial (UT Austin)…Editorial
April 5, 2005

We thought we were through with Los Alamos.

Lockheed Martin dove back in to the bidding process last week after the
Department of Energy revised its terms. Citing poor competition for the
lab, the government made the contract more lucrative and required a more
attractive pension plan. This, plus a longer contract period and a new
management structure, changed the defense company's stance from "too
risky" to "bombs away."

And, apparently, where Lockheed goes, the UT System will follow.

The System decided not to bid on Los Alamos in February, citing security
and safety concerns and a lack of suitable partners. Seven months earlier,
Lockheed decided not to bid, citing significant risk factors, including
money and reputation.

When Lockheed returned to the table, the System immediately began eyeing a
seat next to the defense giant.

A Lockheed spokesman told several newspapers last week that it rejoined
the competition because of several changes to the Department of Energy's
Request for Proposal. The draft RFP would now require the creation of a
legal entity - separate from Lockheed - to manage the lab with its own
board of directors. The new structure could provide a shield to Lockheed's
liability and reputation in case of more safety or security snafus.

UT System spokeswoman Randa Safady could not explain the System's decision
to reconsider a bid, except to say that Lockheed must have seen something
in the new draft RFP.

But the "risk" is still there. Although Los Alamos has managed to stay out
of the headlines for the past few months, an "unsatisfactory" rating in
safety and security still hangs over the lab like a noxious, radioactive

A 2004 Department of Energy performance appraisal mentions "a number of
near miss accidents," and a letter signed by National Nuclear Security
Administrator Linton Brooks mentioned several instances of poor, ignorant
or negligent safety practices.

So far, Los Alamos has done little to prove that things have gotten
better. The lab's safety problems could be dangerous for the University's
reputation and for employees and graduate students that might conduct
research there. At this time, we have no reason to believe that the lab is
no longer a managerial nightmare.

But there could be one bright side to the System's reexamination of a Los
Alamos bid.

On Monday, the System released a cryptic statement on Lockheed's renewed
interest in the New Mexico lab. The statement referenced the System's
partnership with Lockheed regarding Sandia National Laboratories. This
page supported this agreement because it specifies that the UT System will
be involved in only non-classified and non-nuclear research.

"We view this agreement between UT System and Sandia as a model of
university/industrial partnerships with a national laboratory," the
statement reads.

We hope that the System's "model partnership" would be one that keeps the
University out of classified and nuclear weapons research. The secrecy
that shrouds this kind of defense research is antithetical to the
transparency that should be central to a university's mission.

Safady said it was too soon to determine the System's intentions. But, if
the System's relationship with Los Alamos resembles the one with Sandia,
then we would be consider supporting a bid.

It's amazing that when troops are dying on the battlefield that the Daily Texan finds that "the secrecy that shrouds this kind of defense research (secret research) is antithetical to the transparency that should be central to a university's mission." I hope you know that classified research deals with protecting the troops in the field and the security of this nation, which I believe, includes Texas. That function has been performed admirably as a public service by great universities of the caliber of Princeton, MIT, Penn State, and the University of California. Cardinal Newman defined a university as "a place where inquiry is pushed forward, discoveries verified and perfected, and rashness rendered innocuous, and error exposed, by the collision of mind with mind, and knowledge with knowledge." Why can't this process be pursued in a classified venue when the very existence of civilization is being challenged? Maybe it is the Daily Texan that has a cultural problem.
BTW, I forgot to mention all the unclassified, and therefore acceptable research we do. Los Alamos instruments found water on the Moon and on Mars, deemed one of the ten most important discover of the year by Science Magazine. We collected particles of the solar wind. Our RTGs power the Cassini mission to Saturn. Think of it. All those pictures of the moons of Saturn are made possible by Los Alamos power. We have characterized 100s of isolates and near neighbors of anthrax, a disease of importance to both humans and longhorns. Los Alamos scientists have developed means of using carbon dioxide to clean electronic components and lubricate machine tools saving enormous quantities of petroleum. They have developed small fuel cells that can power microelectronics for long periods of time with a few drops of methanol. Other scientists are characterizing genomic sequences important to human health and are developing detectors to rapidly identify such pathogens as hanta virus. We have teams trying to understand the physics in the hearts of neutron stars. Our scientists are using computers that can, for the fist time, simulate processes at the quantum molecular level allowing us to develop advanced materials that optimize desired properties. I could add many, many other accomplishments but I think you may get the gist of what we do and have accomplished. However in the interest of completeness, I should add that our safety record is comparable to the best standards in industry and our security record is on par with the best organizations in the Department of Energy and the US Government for that matter. Possibly, the time has come for learned people everywhere to forgo the temptation to pile on, to stop for a moment, to evaluate reality, and "remember the Los Alamos."
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