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Do N-labs need new management?

Many still support UC in spite of Los Alamos woes

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LOS ALAMOS, N.M. — Almost without exception, scientists at the Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore nuclear labs say things will get worse if the University of California contract to manage the labs is terminated, as several members of Congress have demanded.

Pulling the contract is not likely, but others apparently are willing to step in. When the last five-year UC contract was up for renewal in 1997, the University of Texas wrote a letter expressing interest in taking over in a consortium with the University of New Mexico and a possible private partner. Others point to the Lockheed Martin Corp., which manages the Sandia complex.

"You don't have to look very far to find another contractor, and they probably can do a better job," said Chris Mechels, a retired Los Alamos computer expert who is now an outspoken critic of UC management.

Most lab staffers insisted that the UC system provides irreplaceable independence and prestige. Many also cited UC's generous retirement and pension packages, as well as guaranteed in-state fees at UC campuses for children of lab employees. UC officials, in turn, said that they have managed the labs since 1943 as a public service.

But the recent scandals have raised doubts among many faculty members.

"We keep reading in the paper that the labs are a den of idiots and spies and we're responsible," said Lawrence B. Coleman, chairman of the UC Academic Council. "The faculty is embarrassed. And incensed. I think a substantial number are saying: 'Let's lose the labs.' "

UC President Richard C. Atkinson insisted that the nation would suffer if UC loses its role.

"The university can survive very well without the weapons labs," he said. "But I don't think the nuclear labs and the whole defense establishment can survive without the scientific leadership the university provides."

Not everyone agrees. In 1989 and again in 1996, two UC faculty panels called for ending the university contract. The head of the most recent review, Dr. Warren M. Gold, professor of medicine at UC San Francisco, said his group's criticism is still valid.

"The whole system of management and oversight is flawed," he said. "Can someone else manage the labs? Well, we're not managing them now."

Some UC officials blame the Energy Department for a lack of direction, citing overlapping and competing lines of authority.

But James F. Koonz, UC executive director of lab operations, said the labs also are at fault. Stricter management of lab administration and operations saved $150 million over the last three years, he said. But the reforms did not affect security.

"We tried," Koonz said. "But the security world is immune. We couldn't touch it."