ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – The U.S. agency responsible for overseeing the nation's nuclear weapons cache is laying out the qualifications that will be required from the next manager of Los Alamos National Laboratory.
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The birthplace of the atomic bomb and still one of the nation's premier nuclear research facilities, Los Alamos has struggled in recent years with a string of safety lapses involving the handling of plutonium and radioactive waste.
The current multibillion-dollar management contract expires in 2018. It was first announced in late 2015 that Los Alamos National Security LLC would be losing the contract to manage the northern New Mexico lab since it failed to earn high enough performance reviews.
The National Nuclear Security Administration released its draft request for proposals Thursday. It calls for the contractor to foster a culture of security and safety consciousness, something watchdog groups say has been missing.
The proposal covers everything from worker safety to cybersecurity and transparency. It also suggests that the contractor will be responsible for measuring its own performance and identifying problems without relying solely on federal government oversight.
The Los Alamos Study Group and other critics have argued that the federal nuclear agency should play more of a role in management and that the contract should not separate authority from responsibility.
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"Federalizing management would allow tremendous streamlining and cost savings, while better protecting employee rights and providing for a less-politicized environment," Greg Mello with the study group said when the bidding process kicked off last month.
Mello on Thursday reiterated his concerns about costs despite references in the proposal for a reporting system that allows for "sound financial stewardship and public accountability."
The documents also are clear that the mission at Los Alamos will still revolve around bolstering national security through its nuclear work and other science as well as deterring the international proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
Los Alamos has been working toward resuming production of the plutonium cores that are used to trigger explosions in nuclear weapons. Lab officials have said the plutonium facility is operating safely and that improvements have been made in recent years, but some have questions about Los Alamos' ability to ramp up production given its history of management and oversight concerns.
Federal officials say they will gauge bidders on their past performance, the resumes of key personnel and their plans for working with small business.
The University of New Mexico has confirmed that it's interested in the bidding process, but officials say they're awaiting more information before making any decisions.
The university was part of a coalition that competed for the contract to manage Sandia National Laboratories. That award went to National Technology and Engineering Solutions of Sandia, a subsidiary of Honeywell International.
Los Alamos National Security LLC has held the Los Alamos contract since 2006. It's made up of the University of California, Bechtel, BWXT Government Group, Inc. and URS.