LOS ANGELES (AP) _ California's senior senator is publicly questioning whether the state's university system is the best overseer of the nation's nuclear secrets in the wake of a spying scandal.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein has recommended that the U.S. Justice Department review whether the Lawrence Livermore weapons laboratory near San Francisco and the Los Alamos lab in New Mexico should continue to be managed by the University of California.

In a closed-door Senate meeting in June, Feinstein criticized the university system's nuclear security and a ``culture of interaction'' that encouraged scientists to share information with non-lab academics.

She questioned whether that is ``an appropriate framework for America's essentially deepest and darkest nuclear secrets,'' according to a transcript of the meeting released last week.

Feinstein told the Los Angeles Times on Friday: ``I'm looking at it from a perspective of a secure nuclear program. That's my first priority.''

Former Los Alamos scientist Wen Ho Lee was charged Dec. 10 with mishandled nuclear secrets by transferring classified documents into an unsecure computer system. Seven tapes containing classified material are still missing.

A federal judge on Wednesday rejected Lee's request to be freed from jail until his trial, which could be more than a year away.

Energy Secretary Bill Richardson has suggested that it may be time to seek competitive bids for the management contracts. The university system's multimillion-dollar contracts expire in September 2002.

University system Assistant Vice President Scott Sudduth said Feinstein's support would be crucial for the university system to retain responsibility for the labs.

``When the contract comes up for renewal, there's no question that having the support of the congressional delegation _ and particularly the senior senator _ will be very critical,'' Sudduth said.