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Saturday, July 22, 2006  
UC enlists Bechtel for Livermore lab bid

By: Eric Stern, Bee Staff Writer
Published In: Sacramento Bee

SAN FRANCISCO -- The University of California is preparing to fight for a third federal nuclear lab contract since a series of accounting and security mishaps pushed the U.S. Department of Energy to order competitive bidding.

The UC's governing body, the Board of Regents, agreed last week to team with the Bechtel Corp., a giant engineering and construction firm, to bolster a bid to retain control of the Lawrence Livermore nuclear lab.

Last year the company helped UC hold on to its management contract at Los Alamos labs in New Mexico.

UC has operated the historic labs in Berkeley, Livermore and Los Alamos since they were opened, in the 1940s and '50s. University officials have said the labs are critical to its status as a pre-eminent research school.

The labs may have brought prestige to the university, but they've also brought headaches. In the 1990s, congressional hearings followed espionage allegations and security leaks at Los Alamos.

Investigators grilled UC officials in recent years about hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of property, including more than 400 personal computers, reported missing at Los Alamos.

Investigators also have slammed a superlaser project at Lawrence Livermore for being more than six years behind schedule and likely to pass $4 billion in costs -- more than twice the original price tag.

UC officials accepted responsibility, fired and reassigned top officials and dispatched auditors to put in place a series of reforms.

Bids for Lawrence Livermore are due Oct. 12. It is unclear if any other universities or private firms will seek the contract. The winner will be announced in spring 2007.

UC was unopposed last year for the Lawrence Berkeley lab. But it did have to beat out a University of Texas team last year for the Los Alamos contract.

The University of Texas teamed up with defense contractor Lockheed Martin for the Los Alamos contract -- a different approach than UC took with Bechtel to ensure science and research would remain the top priority at the lab.

"We are not in the weapons production business," said UC regents chairman Gerald Parsky.

Bechtel is a premier leader in facility management, said UC lab spokesman Chris Harrington. "When you look at Katrina, Bechtel is there," Harrington said. "When you look at Iraq, they're there. Major government projects -- Bechtel is there."

Bechtel also has been in the news recently. The company was involved the Big Dig highway project in Boston, where a motorist was crushed earlier this month by falling concrete slabs in a connecting tunnel.

Lawrence Livermore director George Miller said he was not troubled by Bechtel's connection to the Boston accident. "We're really excited by the partnerships that the university is putting together," he said.

Lawrence Livermore has a $1.7 billion annual budget and about 8,500 employees. UC's current contract to run Lawrence Livermore expires on Sept. 30, 2007.

The lab, named after UC Berkeley physicist Ernest O. Lawrence, has its roots in atomic bomb research. Scientists there are responsible for monitoring the country's aging nuclear weapons stockpile -- figuring out which bombs are now duds. The lab also has expanded into homeland security and bioterrorism research.

The UC will make a final decision on its Lawrence Livermore bid this summer. Regents chairman Parsky said a new lab management contract needs to place the greatest weight on science and research.

"If it doesn't, I think we need to carefully rethink whether or not we want to participate," Parsky said. "The role of science and the role of the university most be foremost in pursuing these lab contracts."

Criteria for evaluating the bids include the potential contractor's management approach to "conducting world-class science and technology," the organizational structure for managing the laboratory and past performance, according to the National Nuclear Security Administration, the nuclear science arm of the Energy Department.

Meanwhile, activists in Livermore continue to raise concerns about the dangerous scope of work being conducted in the highly populated Bay Area.

"UC needs to get out of the bomb business," said Tara Dorabji of Tri-Valley Communities Against a Radioactive Environment, at the beginning of a regents hearing last week.

About the writer:

* The Bee's Eric Stern can be reached at (916) 321-1048 or

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