January 13, 2006

New DOE guidelines intensify race for Argonne

The University’s effort to keep Argonne management rights intensified last week as the federal government released stewardship guidelines for the lab.

The outline, formally called a Request for Proposal, represents the Department of Energy’s (DOE) changing requirements for running Argonne, and could reflect weaknesses in the University’s current efforts or long-term expectation changes from the Department of Energy.

One main change is the DOE’s call for a new corporate body to oversee Argonne, according to University Vice President Thomas Rosenbaum. “This appears to be the model that DOE is moving towards throughout the national laboratory system,” Rosenbaum said.

The proposal also increases Argonne’s yearly management stipend from $3.5 million to $5.8 million. That increase would make Argonne more attractive to firms interested in the half-billion-dollar-a-year lab, which is located about 25 miles from the Chicago loop and focuses on high level physics, chemistry, and energy.

To Rosenbaum, the new management guidelines appropriately balance science and management expectations. Responding to the new guidelines, Rosenbaum said, “We are concentrating on producing a proposal that will permit us to exceed [the DOE’s] expectations.”

According to a press release from the University news office, the U of C has partnered with BWX Technologies Inc. (BWXT) to bid on the contract for Argonne. BWXT, which provides management and operations support at nine DOE sites, is a well known leader in the industry of nuclear facilities operations. BWXT shares the University’s goals in the future management of Argonne. The University has managed Argonne since its creation in 1946, but the current contract expires this September.

Helping to drive the University’s effort to create a superlative Argonne management proposal is the competition it faces for the lab. Firms vying for Argonne include Battelle, the not-for-profit group that manages five national laboratories. In February 2005, Battelle took over the University of Chicago’s management of Argonne West, the lab in Idaho.

Widespread mismanagement of the Los Alamos National Laboratory by the University of California system led to a January 2004 decision to put Argonne and four other university-run labs up for competitive bidding.

While Battelle is considered the University’s most formidable competition for Argonne, some of the group’s labs have come under scrutiny for security and safety problems. At Oak Ridge, the Battelle lab in Tennessee, nuclear facilities were grossly unsecured, according to security analysts.

Ronald Timm and Peter Stockton, both national security analysts and former federal employees, visited Oak Ridge in September 2005 to learn about the lab’s security on behalf of the Project on Government Oversight, a Washington, D.C. think-tank.

After the two had an unsatisfactory glimpse—Timm said they received a “9th grade science tour”—they decided to take matters into their own hands: They would test the lab’s security by penetrating the Oak Ridge campus as far as security would allow.

Driving around Oak Ridge, the two stopped to get directions to the building with Uranium-233, Timm said. When they arrived at the building, the two security guards on the premises drove away.

Timm and Stockton parked within 10 feet of the building and spent 20 minutes walking around before security officers and suited Battelle officials stopped them, Timm said.

“It was poor security,” Timm said. “From my experience testing facilities, this was not the cream of the crop. And this was not standard procedure of how to secure a nuclear site.”

Oak Ridge spokesman Walter Perry disputed Timm’s claim, saying that the car had been parked in front a building that did not have nuclear materials and the two visitors were on sidewalks accessible to anyone on the lab campus.

Asked if Oak Ridge has ordered broad security review, Perry said the lab does not reveal its practices. “We are always reviewing our security practices to ensure our facilities and the employees who work in them are well protected,” he said. “One can rest assured that we are, and will always be, well prepared to deal with any adversaries.”

Another Battelle-run lab, Brookhaven, located in Long Island, New York, is also facing criticism. In the DOE’s 2004 annual evaluation, Brookhaven was reprimanded with a “marginal” rating for its “Safety and Health” performance.

In the report, the DOE charged that Brookhaven’s safety improvements included too much “low lying fruit,” with management “choosing not to select the more difficult tasks such as culture change, incident investigation, corrective actions, skill of the craft, etc.”

Responding to the report in a May 2005 letter, Brookhaven Director Praveen Chaudhari wrote that Brookhaven is striving to lower the rate of injuries.