updated 5/26/2005 7:11:30 PM ET 2005-05-26T23:11:30

The University of California decided Thursday to compete for the government contract to continue running Los Alamos, the laboratory that built the atomic bomb.

The university has managed the nuclear weapons lab in the New Mexico desert since it was created in 1943 as part of the top-secret Manhattan Project. But after a recent string of security lapses and financial abuses, the government decided for the first time to put the contract up for bid.

The university’s regents voted 11-1 to team up with the engineering powerhouse Bechtel Corp. and submit a bid. Regents chairman Gerald Parsky said the board realizes there have been “management deficiencies” at Los Alamos, and that is why the university is forming a partnership with the industrial giant.

The University of Texas and Lockheed Martin are also planning a joint bid. Another defense contractor, Northrop Grumman, recently indicated it would compete for the contract, too, but said Thursday it had decided not to.

On Wednesday, two key UC committees recommended the university go after the contract, saying the school has a duty to stay on as stewards of Los Alamos. Some students, though, urged the university to cut ties with the lab, saying UC should not be in the weapons business.

The contract will be for seven years, with a possible extension for 13 more. The government is offering to pay as much $79 million annually. That would be nearly 10 times what UC had been making.

Los Alamos has about 8,000 University of California employees and 3,000 contract workers.

The Energy Department plans to award the new contract Dec. 1.

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