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Turnaround weighed at Los Alamos lab

With morale low, facility may get a new operator

LOS ALAMOS, N.M. -- The Wen Ho Lee case. Confusion over the whereabouts of classified computer disks. Workers buying camping and hunting gear on the government's dime. Disgruntled scientists posting complaints on a blog. A potential brain drain among weapons specialists.

Los Alamos, the government lab that built the atomic bomb during World War II, is beset with turmoil and uncertainty, and there could be more to come.

To run the place more efficiently, the US government is putting the contract to operate Los Alamos up for bid for the first time since the lab was created in 1943 as part of the top-secret Manhattan Project.

The University of California, which has run Los Alamos from the beginning, could be out. A defense contractor with a more bottom-line outlook could be in.

And that worries some.

The government's request for bids appears to be ''skewed toward a corporate structure, rather than a not-for-profit entity," said US Representative Tom Udall of New Mexico, a Democrat.

''I hope this requirement does not affect the science at the lab or result in an exodus of employees, as many have feared," he said.

Tyler Przybylek of the National Nuclear Security Administration, the Energy Department agency that plans to award the new contract by Dec. 1, gave assurances Thursday that Los Alamos would continue to be a world-class scientific institution.

''I think that what people will see over time is good operations and good business aren't the enemies of great science; they enable it," Przybylek said.

Los Alamos, with about 8,000 University of California employees and 3,000 contract workers, is one of the nation's three chief installations responsible for maintaining the nation's nuclear arsenal and manufacturing weapons components.

The lab also conducts research on a host of topics of national interest, including miniaturized technology, genetics, computing, the environment, and health.

In 1999, in a case that proved a major embarrassment for the government and the lab, Los Alamos scientist Wen Ho Lee was jailed amid an investigation into possible Chinese espionage.

The case proved to be weak, and Lee pleaded guilty to mishandling classified information and was released with an apology from a federal judge.

The lab was rocked by other security lapses, as well as credit card abuses, theft of equipment, and other instances of mismanagement.

Pete Nanos, a former Navy admiral, was brought in as director two years ago to ''drain the swamp," as he put it, and was credited by the Energy Department earlier this month, when he stepped down, with instituting some sound business practices.

But he also made enemies with his brusque management style, calling scientists who flouted the rules ''cowboys" and ''buttheads." Last summer, Nanos suspended nearly all work for weeks and ordered a massive search for two missing computer disks that never existed; there was merely a paperwork error.

Some workers responded with a blog site that ridiculed their boss.

On Thursday, the government released its request for proposals from businesses or institutions interested in running Los Alamos, offering to pay up to $79 million a year to a contractor -- nearly 10 times the amount the University of California now makes for a job it essentially regards as a nonprofit venture.

The University of Texas plans to team up with Lockheed Martin and bid on the contract. The University of California has joined forces with Bechtel but has yet to decide for certain whether it will compete. Northrop Grumman also plans to bid.

Charles Mansfield, who heads a group of retired lab employees, said uncertainty over the lab's future and poor morale have led key scientists to consider retiring early. ''From the nation's standpoint it's turning out to be a terrible debacle," he said.

Roughly 200 people since Oct. 1 have indicated they are considering retirement, with more than half from the weapons and physics, weapons engineering and manufacturing and threat-reduction divisions, lab spokesman James Rickman said.

''Those people are critical to the core mission of the laboratory," Rickman said. ''We're trying to work as an institution to make sure that we capture and retain the very critical, sometimes esoteric, knowledge that these people have. It's absolutely critical to the security and reliability of the nuclear weapons stockpile."

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