The UT System’s bid for Los Alamos is an accident waiting to happen

Spencer Buckner

Los Alamos National Laboratory is a bastion of the nuclear community — instrumental in the creation of the first atomic bomb and countless innovations since. Any opportunity for UT to work with Los Alamos should seem common sense.

That’s the argument the UT System Board of Regents gave in a narrow 4-3 ruling in their most recent bid to operate LANL in late November. But it’s not that cut and dry. Los Alamos, which has been managed by the University of California system since World War II, has increasingly faced scrutiny for a litany of safety violations that have now twice forced the Department of Energy to open up the managing contract for a bid — the second time being this year.

You’d think that after failing to win a bid to manage LANL back in 2005, the regents would realize they dodged a plutonium bullet. Instead, the regents who approved the bid claim that the UT System holds the key to reversing a trend of reckless near-misses with nuclear disaster, loss of classified nuclear information and consistent failure to meet basic national safety regulations. These claims are no more than wishful thinking. Los Alamos is plagued with issues the UT System is ill-equipped to solve, and an association is more prone to harm our reputation than elevate it.

Under the current system at Los Alamos, scientists attribute chronic mishaps and headaches to private industry pressures and Department of Energy policy. The UC system runs Los Alamos in a public-private partnership with multiple corporations,   putting research-driven university initiatives at odds with profit-driven corporate initiatives that often throw safety out the window. Management is further complicated by Department of Energy monetary kickbacks that are only handed out if the lab meets what can be infeasible deadlines.

Nothing about the UT System’s bid changes this fact. In fact, the UT System has announced an unnamed private partner — much like the UC System’s — to help manage Los Alamos if UT were to get the bid. The fact that the partner is unnamed should set off alarm bells. How can we possibly have confidence in the UT System’s chances of successfully managing a troubled nuclear laboratory if we don’t know who we’d be running it with?

Even if we have a commendable private partner, the reputation our regents are betting on will still likely take a hit. The very process of bidding has already cost us $4.5 million. Add to that the likelihood of tens of millions of dollars in funding cuts from the federal government used as punishment for every lab accident, and suddenly, the System has bills to pay — bills that would further strain a budget already at its breaking point. Combine this with the probability of taxpayer-funded billion dollar cleanup efforts caused by a dysfunctional culture at Los Alamos that the UT System can’t fix, and suddenly, our reputation is at jeopardy.

Our Board of Regents must recognize that a contract with Los Alamos is as volatile as the isotopes they produce. Bidding for management of LANL puts the System at risk of further budget strains and the high-profile headaches that come with a troubled lab. Let’s do ourselves a favor and back out while we can.

Buckner is a Plan II and government freshman from Austin.