AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Texas A&M University leaders said Tuesday that Energy Secretary Rick Perry wasn’t involved in his alma mater getting a $2.5 billion nuclear weapons lab contract at the birthplace of the atomic bomb, which is changing management after years of safety and security lapses.
The new director over Los Alamos National Laboratory near Santa Fe, New Mexico, also defended the University of California staying on with the lab despite being part of the current team that is losing the job over a checkered record and missed goals.
At a time when the U.S. is pushing to restart production of plutonium cores for the nation’s nuclear arsenal, a new consortium called Triad National Security LLC is taking over the lab that began in the 1940s as part of the Manhattan Project. Triad won the bid in June and is comprised of Texas A&M, the University of California and Ohio-based Battelle Memorial Institute.
Texas A&M Chancellor John Sharp, speaking at length about the contract for the first time Tuesday, said Triad’s proposal was favorably scored by the National Nuclear Security Administration before it reached Perry’s desk. Perry, who was Texas governor until 2015, was friends with Sharp in college at Texas A&M and he appointed many of the school regents who are still serving today.
The NNSA has previously said Perry played no role in the evaluation or selection of the new management at Los Alamos.
“I’m told it’s highly unusual to not have any protests, and no one protested this deal,” Sharp said.
The NNSA has recommended that that Los Alamos each year produce up to 30 plutonium cores — the trigger for nuclear warheads. The lab in recent years has mishandled plutonium and mistakenly shipped nuclear material to other federal facilities via a commercial cargo plane.
It also inappropriately packaged waste that led to a radiation release and a nearly three-year closure of the nation’s only underground nuclear waste repository. Sharp said the University of California will provide important continuity despite past mistakes, with Battelle and Texas A&M bringing fresh eyes when Triad officially takes over later this year.
Watchdog groups that have been critical of the safety lapses at the New Mexico lab were concerned about the University of California’s continued role and political influence in that state.
“If you came in and just said, ‘You know, this is all irretrievably broken, we’re going to sweep it away,’ you would run the risk of disrupting a very important mission at a time when it’s busier than it’s been for many, many years,” said Triad President Thomas Mason, who is taking over as director at Los Alamos.
Mason also did not say whether Triad, which is being setup as a nonprofit unlike Los Alamos’ current management, will pay certain taxes in what has become an issue closely watched by New Mexico officials who worry about losing millions of dollars. He said Triad is still studying New Mexico law and what might apply.
In December 2016, the Department of Energy turned down a coalition that included Texas A&M to take over the Sandia National Laboratories, another New Mexico lab that makes up the U.S. nuclear complex.
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