WASHINGTON – Nineteen firms have expressed interest in taking over management of Argonne National Lab from the University of Chicago,the Department of Energy announced Friday.
Groups interested in managing the half-a-billion-dollar-a-year research lab include research juggernauts Northrop Grumman and Battelle as well as several small firms seeking subcontracts for part of the work.
Under the university's management,Argonne has been reprimanded for its handling of nuclear material. According to Argonne officials,nuclear materials were mislabeled – but never unsecured – in 2004.
Despite these problems,the university says it welcomes competition for the non-weapons lab,which focuses on high level physics,chemistry and energy. The lab is 25 miles southwest of the Chicago Loop.
In an interview two weeks ago,Thomas F. Rosenbaum,the university's vice president for Argonne,said,“I don't want to be arrogant,but I'm confident we'll receive the contract.”
Asked Monday about the other firms' interest in the contract,Rosenbaum said,“Argonne is an extremely well run lab that does great science,so we're not surprised at all that there's considerable interest in running Argonne National Lab.”
Battelle,a not-for-profit firm that manages five national labs,began its oversight of Argonne National Lab West in February – replacing the University of Chicago as steward of the nuclear research lab in Idaho.
“When these labs are up for bid,it's something we almost always take a look at and see if it's a fit for us,” said Battelle spokesman Mark S. Berry. “We'll have to wait for the official request for proposal to see if it really is a fit for us.”
Battelle's acquisition of Argonne West probably will not affect the Ohio-based group's level of interest in Argonne East,Berry said. “I don't know if there would be any connection,” he said.
Smaller firms interested in Argonne want specific subcontracts. Chicago-based Globetrotters Engineering,for example,is interested in facility management and maintenance opportunities,said Vice President Michael J. Paulius.
Argonne has been managed by the University of Chicago since its creation in 1946. 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.
The Chicago office of the Department of Energy will select a steward for Argonne by September 2006,when the university's contract expires,said Gary L. Pitchford,a DOE spokesman in Chicago.
DOE will issue a preliminary request for proposals by the end of this year. But the agency intends to meet with interested firms and negotiate a final RFP to make Argonne as attractive as possible to research firms,Pitchford said.
The RFP could differ from the terms of the current management of Argonne,signaling a change in expectations from a management group.
One possible change is an increase in the management fee,which could make the lab more attractive to potential Argonne managers. The university receives about $3 million annually.
Another area of change could be security. In three cases in 2004,nuclear material was labeled incorrectly,leading the DOE to reprimand Argonne,said Adam B. Cohen,Argonne's chief operating officer.
In one case,uranium sent to Nevada was not removed from Argonne's log,Cohen said. Another time,documents showed that nuclear material being transferred within Argonne changed weight during transit.
“Those were bad things,and they should never have happened,but the material's security was never the issue,” Cohen said.
Because of shortcomings in “Materials Control and Accountability” – the category that includes security of sensitive materials – DOE downgraded Argonne's “Integrated Safeguards and Security” rating from “outstanding” in 2003 to “good” in 2004.
But in other areas of the 2004 report,the university received a stellar review,earning 99.5 percent of performance-tied funding.
Cohen,who said he would be out of a job if the university lost management of Argonne,said DOE focused on these three incidents in its report. “They hit us pretty hard because this is a really serious area,and there's very little margin for error,” he said.