Los Alamos closer to reopening

Four employees fired, one forced to resign in response to safety and security incidents

Sep 17, 2004
Adam Rankin(arankin@abqjournal.com)

The director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, which has been shuttered since July because of safety and security problems, fired four senior scientists and managers this week for their roles in a classified security snafu and a laser accident that permanently injured the eye of an undergraduate student intern. The moves, praised by members of Congress who oversee the lab's operations, come as the lab moves to resume normal operations by the end of this month.

A fifth lab employee is being forced to resign, and seven others received written reprimands, demotions, salary reductions, suspensions without pay, or some combination of those actions.

Of 23 employees placed on paid investigative leave in July and August, only 10 will return to work with no findings of wrongdoing. One employee remains on paid leave pending the outcome of Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and US Department of Energy investigations.

After calling a halt to operations on July 16, Nanos lashed out at the few scientists responsible, calling them "cowboys" for failing to follow safety and security procedures. In an all-employee E-mail this week, Nanos said he shut the lab down because "a pattern of near misses in safety and security had created in me and others a fundamental lack of confidence in our ability to conduct work without a major mishap."

Nanos put 19 scientists and managers on paid leave following the July 7 discovery that a pair of classified Zip disks were missing from the top-secret Weapons Physics Division. Statements from Sen. Pete Domenici (R-NM), who was briefed on the matter, raised the possibility that the disks never existed.

In an interview this week, Nanos declined to say whether the disks really exist or whether a clerical error made it seem like they were missing, citing pending investigations by the FBI and Energy Department. "I think that is all going to come out very shortly," he said.

Also in July, four other scientists were put on leave for their role in a laser accident that "vaporized" seven layers of an intern's retina, possibly damaging the fovea, which is the most critical portion of the retina for visual acuity, according to a 100-page injury report on the accident released this week.

The report notes the senior scientist in charge of the experiment developed no safety plan as required prior to beginning the investigation and only prepared one after the accident occurred. He then had the student pre-date the plan to make it appear as though it was prepared earlier, according to Los Alamos' internal investigation.

The disciplinary actions target all levels of employees, up to associate director, but Nanos wouldn't release the names of those individuals, citing federal and state privacy laws.

Nanos was in Washington, DC, on Wednesday (September 15) briefing members of Congress on the disciplinary actions.

Nanos said the actions are "totally based on what the employees did, against what their job was, and is based on their failure to perform their duties in a credible way."

Domenici, who holds a key laboratory oversight position as chairman of the Senate Energy Water Development and Appropriations Subcommittee, praised Nanos' tough actions.

"The personnel actions are not easy for the lab, but they are necessary," he said. "By putting these issues behind us, it will allow Los Alamos scientists to focus on performing the best science and remind the country why Los Alamos is a world-class scientific institution."

The University of California–run laboratory has suffered a series of embarrassing financial and management problems since 2002 that provoked the Department of Energy to put the laboratory contract up for competition for the first time in its 61-year history. University of California's contract expires at the end of September 2005.

But Nanos said he is proud of the 12,000-employee workforce and the effort they have put in to overcome the lab's safety and security "defects," and said the lab is on schedule to resume all levels of operations, including classified work, by the end of September.