Battelle ‘intrigued’ by NNSA possibilities

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Battelle executive Ron Townsend talks on the sidelines of last week’s Nuclear Deterrence Summit.

Ron Townsend, Battelle’s executive vice president for global laboratory operations, was in Washington, D.C., last week for the 7th annual Nuclear Deterrence Summit, and it was very much a business trip. Townsend was there to better understand the challenges facing the National Nuclear Security Administration and evaluate what roles Battelle might play in the nuclear weapons complex and what it might be able to contribute.

“We’re intrigued,” Townsend said in an interview. “We have a very strong science and energy portfolio. We manage three Science labs (Oak Ridge, Pacific Northwest and Brookhaven) and both Energy labs — Idaho and NREL (National Renewable Energy Lab). We don’t have a significant presence in the weapons area, the national nuclear security arena. But we’re intrigued by that.”

Currently, Battelle’s only work in the weapons complex is a subcontracting role at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. “We’re responsible for work for others in the nonproliferation, counter-terrorism area. It’s a small role, but it’s an active role,” he said.

Townsend said it’s premature to say Battelle aspires to a greater role. “We’re assessing whether or not we ought to aspire,” he said.

But he said he thought that skills developed in managing five Department of Energy laboratories could prove valuable in the nuclear security enterprise.

“They translate directly,” Townsend said. “We believe that the best-practices principles that we’ve developed at the other laboratories translate directly, and it’s a question of is it something we really want to do.”

There’s a lot of talk swirling these days about changes in contractor governance and the introduction or re-introduction of in-the-public-interest contracting in the weapons complex. Townsend said that’s very much a Battelle thing.

“We love it,” he said. “Battelle embraced the public-service model before the public-service model was even known. That’s who we are. I think it’s a great idea.”

Townsend said he’s not really a fan of award-term contracting, where the contract is extended on an annual basis based on the year’s review.

“We believe in performance-based. We believe we ought to be accountable. That means if we screw up that we get hammered and when we do good we ought to get rewarded. And so we think that individual team management members ought to, their compensation ought to be performance-based. We think our contract ought to be performance-based.”

Townsend said Battelle is currently part of an award-term contract at Brookhaven. “And we’ve enthusiastically embraced it, but it’s not my preference.”

He explained: “The reason I don’t like the award-term approach is it’s a tactical decision based on one-year performance and, typically, that’s relegated to a lower level in DOE . . . Award term means if you perform well in a given year that you earn another year on your contract. And typically how well you perform is determined by individuals  who are lower in the management chain within the Department of Energy. You might mess up a conference management something, you might mess that up and it results in a lower score that precludes you from getting (an award term). Whereas, the five-year decision, like we just went through at Oak Ridge, that’s a strategic decision made by the Secretary of Energy based on a body of work over five years. And so I think it’s more important to have a performance-based contract and have extend/compete decisions based on a longer period of work.”

Townsend didn’t specify any upcoming NNSA contracts of interest to Battelle, but he also didn’t seem to place any limits on possible roles.

“There’s a lot of churn in the NNSA complex in terms of potential management opportunities, whether it be the laboratory or (other) . . . I’m just curious.”

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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.