Los Alamos contract puts UC in PR battle
Texas partnership leads opposing bid to run weapons lab

Keay Davidson, Chronicle Science Writer

The competition to decide who runs Los Alamos National Laboratory is now fully under way, and its outcome will decide whether California loses one arm in its two-handed grip on the nation's nuclear weapons complex.

Last week, after three years of Los Alamos scandals that ranged from the sinister to the tacky to the dangerous -- scandals over missing computer disks containing secret bomb data, an alleged mispurchase of a Ford Mustang , and a woman who suffered a severe eye injury while working with a laser -- the University of California finally, definitively decided to fight for its job as the lab manager. It faces a single titanic competitor, a team jointly led by aerospace giant Lockheed Martin and the enormous University of Texas system.

Thus UC, like an aging diva forced to audition for a part that would have once been hers for the asking, must now go head to head for the job with a competitor from a state better known for its oil wells, arid plains and favorite son in the White House than for its oft-excellent campuses. For its part, UC has teamed with Bechtel National, the division of Bechtel Corp. that carries out the firm's U.S. government contracts, and several other partners.

Last week, after more than a year of public dithering and private anxiety, the UC regents finally voted, 11 to 1, to join the competition for the next Los Alamos contract. The current contract is held by UC and expires in September, but will probably be extended pending the U.S. Energy Department selection of the next contractor. The winner will be announced about Dec. 1, Energy Department officials say.

It's too early to say which of the two will prove to be the abler sales team, capable of responding to public concerns on a moment's notice. Both teams proved their mettle late last week, when a chance remark by a former U.S. arms control official inspired a reporter to raise a previously unplanned question: Which of the team's candidates for director of Los Alamos has the best qualifications?

During an interview with a former U.S. government figure and arms control negotiator, Ambassador Thomas Graham Jr., a reporter asked which of the two competitors he'd rather see in charge of Los Alamos.

Graham replied that he wouldn't take sides, noting that "they're both outstanding bidders." Then, without prompting, Graham emphasized his great respect for C. Paul Robinson, a physicist with diplomatic experience whom the Lockheed Martin-Texas team has selected as its choice for director of Los Alamos, should that team win the competition. Robinson is also the former president and director of Sandia National Laboratories.

"I have the highest regard for the professional ability and competence of Ambassador Paul Robinson," Graham said. "He is a man with a broad technical background. ... He's also had diplomatic experience. ... Diplomatic experience is useful because inevitably our national laboratories have become involved with their Russian counterparts (after the Cold War). ... In Paul Robinson's case, it's proven to be quite valuable because of the relations he was able to develop between Sandia and Kurchatov Institute, the premier Russian national lab."

The reporter called Lockheed Martin for comment, and its spokesman, Don Carson, took advantage of the opportunity to regale the reporter with a glowing explanation of why Robinson would be a terrific Los Alamos boss.

"I believe Paul Robinson is the right person for this job," Carson declared. "I believe that so strongly that I came out of retirement to work with him again on the Los Alamos project. ... I think Paul is the finest leader I've worked with. ... He's really a neat guy. You just don't meet people like him every day. He's a true patriot."

Robinson's competitor for the Los Alamos job is physicist Michael Anastasio, whom the UC-Bechtel team has picked to lead its campaign. Initially, given the holiday weekend, it looked as though no UC publicist could be corralled by press time to deliver for Anastasio the same heartfelt plea for Anastasio that Carson gave for Robinson. A publicist at Anastasio's present employer, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory -- which UC also manages -- did e-mail a reporter biographical information on Anastasio, which didn't detail any experience in diplomatic relations or arms control.

But just in time, UC spokesman Chris Harrington countered Lockheed Martin's serve with this tribute to Anastasio's diplomatic background, stating in part: "Mike Anastasio has extensive experience on the diplomatic and international front, and has been working with Russians extensively. In addition, he has a warm relationship with his Russian counterparts and is well respected. ... Mike has also been a U.S. government representative, on behalf of DOE, to England, France and the former Soviet Union. ... In addition Mike has recent experience working with the nuclear deterrent in support of U.S. diplomacy."

Unfair though it might seem, in the race to win the next Los Alamos contract, those kinds of opportunities to score public relations points might make a huge difference to the outcome.

In a sense, one publicity expert says, UC faces the same challenge that Wendy's did after someone claimed -- falsely, police now say -- to have found a severed finger in a cup of chili: to convince the public and politicians that UC can be trusted to continue running the lab where the atomic bomb was born.

"In the pitched battle between perception and reality, perception always wins," warns Steven Fink, a crisis management adviser to numerous corporations struggling to repair damaged reputations. He pointed out that, in this competition, UC has both advantages and disadvantages -- advantages in the sense that it has run Los Alamos for six decades, and disadvantages in the sense that in recent years, it acquired the reputation, fairly or unfairly, of having badly fumbled that mission.

UC's trustworthiness has been in question since 2002, when Los Alamos began enduring a series of scandals that wouldn't quit -- scandals over the security of classified information as well as finances and safety. With FBI assistance, lab officials turned the lab upside down in frantic efforts to find missing computer disks with weapons information -- including, in one particularly embarrassing incident, two disks that ultimately were believed never to have existed.

The lab's director was fired, along with some top officials, and replaced by a tough-talking admiral who chewed out staffers -- he called some of them "cowboys" and "buttheads" -- in all-hands meetings of the 12,000-employee lab. (In turn, the admiral was replaced just this month with a veteran of the nuclear weapons establishment.)

Furious about the scandals, the Department of Energy and Congress ordered that all future Los Alamos contracts be opened to outside bidders. The final specifications for the next contract were issued May 19, with a deadline of July 19 for submissions.

Can UC repair its reputation in time to win the next Los Alamos contract? Fink, who has no connection with the competition, suggested possible ways that it can.

Crucially, the University of California "needs to demonstrate conclusively that it would do a better job -- despite the (scandal) baggage -- in managing this contract than its competitors," said Fink, author of "Crisis Management: Planning for the Inevitable" and president of Lexicon Communications Corp. in Los Angeles, billed as "the nation's oldest and most experienced crisis management firm."

UC's scientists have "certain advantages, given the fact that they do have a long and distinguished track record -- and I do mean distinguished track record -- in managing the (previous Los Alamos) contracts, the recent embarrassing events notwithstanding," Fink said. Another advantage is UC's status as an educational institution, which gives it an aura of objectivity that the public doesn't necessarily associate with private weapons corporations such as Lockheed Martin. UC, he stressed, needs to emphasize these virtues to win back public confidence.

Also, Fink said, UC shouldn't hesitate to take advantage of one of the oldest arguments in the book for maintaining the status quo: Don't change horses in the middle of the stream. In that regard, he said, UC can take advantage of current world tensions.

Fink said that if he were speaking for UC, he'd tell the public and politicians: "What we're talking about here is managing nuclear weapons, the most powerful weapons in the world, and ... in light of what's going on in Iran and North Korea (which are suspected of developing nuclear bombs), Los Alamos needs to be run by an institution with experience, with no learning curve ahead of it." 

Sunday, May 29, 2005