Mason says contract extension not a done deal yet

photo (21)UT-Battelle, the government’s managing contractor at Oak Ridge National Laboratory since 2000, is on the verge of getting a new five-year contract, U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann announced Thursday at a special meeting of the East Tennessee Economic Council.

“The secretary of energy contacted me and has granted a five-year extension to UT-Battelle for a job well done,” Fleischmann told the crowd of Oak Ridge business leaders, which erupted in applause.

ORNL Director Thom Mason attempted to temper the enthusiasm a bit, saying the contract extension is not a done deal yet. He said the Department of Energy has to go through a process, including congressional notifications and the actual negotiation of a new agreement with the Oak Ridge contractor, which is a partnership of Battelle Memorial Institute and the University of Tennessee.

The current contract is due to expire in April 2015, but the Department of Energy typically decides well in advance whether or not to extent a contractor in order to leave time, if necessary, to have a competition.

“We’re not here to announce the contract has been extended because the decision is to enter into negotiations,” Mason said. But he acknowledged that DOE’s statement of intent is a big deal.

“ I am pleased that the determination of the department is that our performance over the last almost-15 years has been sufficiently strong that it merits the opportunity to sit down and talk about that extension,” the lab chief said.

Earlier Thursday, Fleischmann said the decision to extend UT-Battelle’s contract was huge.

“It’s incredible, and it’s a testament to the fact that when a contractor, UT-Battelle, comes in and does a great job — at what I think is the nation’s premier lab — it should be rewarded. And they have been rewarded,” he said.

The Third District congressman added: “I just think Thom Mason has done an incredible job”

Deputy Energy Secretary Dan Poneman was in Oak Ridge Thursday and attended the final-stage demolition of the historic K-25 building.

Asked about the UT-Battelle contract extension, Poneman said, “Oak Ridge is a phenomenal lab. They’ve had a great track record, and all the reviews have been favorable for the lab. So I think the evidence of that performance are showing up in the decision that we made.”

He added: “ … We always go through a very careful and thoughtful process. There are very clear criteria spelled out that determine how we make these kinds of decisions. We apply those assiduously, as we did in this case, and you see the result.’’

Over the years, there have been various arguments made as to whether the lab contracts should be competed on a regular basis regardless of performance. During his visit to Oak Ridge earlier this year, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz was asked about plans for the ORNL contract, and he said intended to take each lab contract on a case-by-case basis.

Poneman said Thursday that the department has statutory obligations, directives and federal criteria in making contract decisions.

“In our review of the project, we look at what other participants might be bidding, what the likely benefits are to the taxpayer, and what the performance has been so far,” he said. “When we rack and stack those criteria, that’s what gives us our answer.”

Asked to describe UT-Battelle’s management performance at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Poneman said, “Very strong.”

In a July interview, Mason said UT-Battelle was deserving of another extension. In a separate interview, UT President Joe DiPietro said the university was willing to do whatever was necessary to keep the ORNL contract.

Fleischmann said he was contacted a few months ago by the East Tennessee Economic Council, which was formed historically to support the federal facilities in Oak Ridge, and recommend to Secretary Moniz that UT-Battelle’s contract be extended without competition.

“That was an easy one for me,” the Chattanooga Republican said, noting his admiration for Mason and Oak Ridge National Laboratory. He said he believes ORNL is the premier research laboratory in the United States.

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About Frank Munger

Senior Writer Frank Munger covers the Dept. of Energy's Oak Ridge facilities and many related topics — nuclear weapons, nuclear waste and other things nuclear, environmental cleanup and science of all sorts. Atomic City Underground is, first and foremost, a news blog, but there's room for analysis, opinion and random thoughts that have no place else to go.