The University of California's contract to run Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (search) in California will be extended for at least two years beyond its 2005 expiration date, say federal officials.

The extension will allow the Energy Department to conduct separate competitions for contractors to operate Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos National Laboratory (search), the other federal nuclear weapons laboratory now managed by the University of California.

California officials welcomed the announcement Wednesday, although Energy Department (search) officials said it signaled no change in their plan to force the University of California to compete for the first time to operate two of the nation's premiere nuclear weapons (search) laboratories. That policy emerged last year after a series of management lapses at the labs, mostly involving sloppy business practices.

"I have concluded that it is very important to ensure that we have the broadest possible competition for future contracts," Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham said in a statement. "Separating these two competitions will achieve that result."

UC's management contract to run Lawrence Livermore is set to expire Sept. 30, 2005. The Energy Department has congressional sanction to extend the contract for two years but will seek an extension of 3 1/2 years, department spokesman Anson Franklin said.

That time will allow any new management at Los Alamos to settle in well before the competition to manage Lawrence Livermore, he said.

UC's contract for Los Alamos also expires Sept. 30, 2005. The contract bidding process has not begun and no date for it has been announced, but Franklin said it is expected to be completed by the time the current contract expires.