UT, A&M in consortium bidding for nuclear weapons lab contract

By RALPH K.M. HAURWITZ | Austin American-Statesman (Tribune News Service) | Published: May 24, 2016

A consortium that includes the Texas A&M University System and the University of Texas System announced Tuesday that it will compete for the contract to operate one of the nation’s nuclear weapons labs.

The two university systems, along with the University of New Mexico, the Boeing Co. and the Battelle Memorial Institute, will bid to run Sandia National Laboratories, based in Albuquerque, N.M., officials said. Sandia, which is owned by the U.S. Department of Energy, has a $2.9 billion annual budget and is currently operated by a unit of Lockheed Martin Corp.

“This collaboration is a perfect fit, leveraging the research power of stellar universities as well as the expertise of Battelle and Boeing to elevate the already remarkable development coming out of Sandia National Laboratories,” UT System Chancellor Bill McRaven said in a written statement.

The UT System, the A&M System and the University of New Mexico would provide research expertise, workforce training and independent peer review of the work done at Sandia, officials said.

Sandia’s roots date to World War II’s Manhattan Project, which built the world’s first atomic bombs. Sandia’s responsibilities include the “non-nuclear components of the nuclear explosive package” and maintaining weapons through “surveillance and the exchange of weapon components that have limited life,” according to its website. Sandia also conducts research involving climate change, cyber security, energy, high-performance computing and other areas.

“Sandia is an engineering laboratory,” said Dale Klein, associate vice chancellor for research at the UT System. “For the weapons work, they do everything outside the nuclear physics package, including the radar and the electronics.”

Klein said Battelle and Boeing would be underwriting the consortium’s proposal. Battelle, a nonprofit, is a major research and development organization based in Columbus, Ohio. Boeing, based in Chicago, is an aerospace and defense contractor.

The idea for creating the consortium arose at a November 2012 dinner hosted by A&M System Chancellor John Sharp at his residence, officials said. Ron Townsend, an executive vice president at Battelle, and M. Katherine Banks, the A&M System’s vice chancellor and dean of engineering, were among the attendees.

“When rumors about this opportunity arose in 2012, Dr. Banks and I knew we were in a unique position to serve our nation,” Sharp said in a statement. “Our first call was to Battelle, and over the last four years, this ideal team was created.”

The consortium could face plenty of competition. Lockheed Martin, the Fluor Corp., the University of Arizona and other organizations have expressed interest in the Sandia contract as well.

The UT System has had a formal relationship with Sandia since 2005, when the two organizations announced a memorandum of understanding. The lab funds research by some faculty members, and students are involved as well, Klein said, adding that UT-Austin has a separate agreement with the lab.

Also in 2005, the UT System and Lockheed lost their bid to operate Los Alamos National Laboratory, with a team led by the University of California and Bechtel National Inc. emerging as the winner. That was the same year that a group including the A&M System and Bechtel failed to win the contract to run the Idaho National Laboratory; that contract went to a consortium led by Battelle and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Many of those involved in running and overseeing national labs say it makes sense to have universities involved rather than leaving the task solely to military contractors. A decision on the Sandia contract is expected by the end of this year, according to A&M System officials.

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