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Los Alamos scientists face future

Director of national lab's resignation welcomed, but many may take early retirement

By | May 9, 2005

When retired Vice Admiral George "Pete" Nanos resigned from his post as director of Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) on Friday (May 6) after two years working to "drain the swamp" of financial and management problems, many scientists who bristled under his tough management style set about rejoicing. But the elation has quickly been tempered by the realization that the lab is left with many problems.

As the seventh director of the laboratory, which is managed by the University of California and also features a biosafety level (BSL)–3 laboratory, Nanos raised the ire of a portion of the lab's workforce and scientists when he ordered all work to come to a halt in July over safety and security concerns prompted by the loss of two classified disks and a laser accident that injured an intern's eye. Early in the shutdown's nearly 7-month course, Nanos blamed a few "cowboy" scientists for failing to follow proper safety and security procedures, and called them "buttheads" for putting their work above all else. The Federal Bureau of Investigation and Energy Department later determined the disks never existed, and costs associated with the shutdown have been estimated at between $120 million and $360 million.

"Immediately, there was a lot of celebrating," said Doug Roberts, a 20-year LANL veteran computer scientist and creator of a blog, LANL: The Real Story, which became known as a place for lab workers and scientists to anonymously post their discontent, much of which was focused on Nanos. A petition on the blog calling for Nanos' resignation generated more than 100 signatures, most of them anonymous.

But "there are some mixed emotions up here right now," Roberts told The Scientist. The lab is facing the prospect of a new managing contract, now that then–Department of Energy (DOE) Secretary Spencer Abraham decided in 2003 to put the $2.2 billion contract up for bid after a series of financial and management problems came to light the previous year. Probable competitors include defense contractors Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin. So far, the University of California and University of Texas System haven't decided whether they will compete. A decision is expected by the end of the summer.

A number of LANL scientists eligible for retirement have threatened they will resign to secure their University of California pensions amid uncertainty over whether the DOE will guarantee the new manager will match the school's benefits. Current projections, based on LANL figures, are that retirements will be up about 50% this year, to 4.6% of the total workforce, or about 380 employees. That compares to average retirement rates for the last 2 years of 3%.

David Carroll, a longtime LANL employee working with a group called Coalition for LANL Excellence, told The Scientist he wouldn't be surprised if the retirement rate triples this year. Already, more than half of the 251 employees who retired last year have completed their retirement paperwork this year, with the busiest months for retirement still ahead.

Nanos, who is taking a job at the Pentagon, will be replaced by Robert Kuckuck, a longtime Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory nuclear weapons scientist who will act as interim director through the end of the current laboratory contract with the Energy Department in September.

Kuckuck told The Scientist he hopes to use his background working with scientists at Los Alamos to stem a potential tide of retirements. "I hope to encourage people to not retire, just based on the uncertainty and fear," he said. "I would hate to see and am concerned about a lot of people leaving."

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