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Nuclear Lab Safety Manager Is Suspended

Los Alamos official had doggedly pushed an investigation into the storage of plutonium in an unauthorized shed.

January 29, 2003|Ralph Vartabedian and Rebecca Trounson | Times Staff Writers

Energy Department officials suspended a senior safety manager at Los Alamos National Laboratory without explanation after he pushed an investigation into unsafe storage of plutonium-contaminated waste and other safety problems at the lab run by the University of California.

Before his suspension in November, Christopher Steele, a 10-year veteran at the nuclear weapons research center, had doggedly pursued an investigation into the lab's use of an unauthorized steel shed for five years to store the radioactive waste.

Until the material was moved in 2001, the New Mexico lab failed to take measures to ensure that it would not be released in a fire or earthquake, according to Energy Department documents.

Energy Department officials, finding a serious safety breach that could have jeopardized the public, assessed a $220,000 fine in late December.

News of Steele's suspension comes as the lab, operated by UC under contract with the Energy Department, is under heightened federal scrutiny because of allegations of mismanagement and financial irregularities. Two investigators who were looking into those matters contend they were fired by the lab in November as part of a cover-up. UC rehired the investigators this month after the firings became public.

The Energy Department, stung by that controversy, is considering whether to break UC's contract to run Los Alamos and two other labs. UC officials are in Washington this week to discuss the problems at Los Alamos, among other issues, with department officials and members of Congress.

Scrambling to retain the contract, the university already has reassigned or replaced half a dozen senior officials at the lab, including lab director John C. Browne, who resigned earlier this month.

Some congressional leaders are worried that the lab and the Energy Department are trying to squelch additional embarrassing disclosures.

"We know that part of the unhealthy culture there is that if you rock the boat and make the university look bad, you're fired," said Rep. James Greenwood (R-Pa.), who chairs the House oversight subcommittee that is investigating the lab. "If that's the case in this instance [involving Steele], we'd certainly be concerned about it."

The suspension of Steele, unlike the firings of the investigators in November, was carried out by the Energy Department, not by the lab or UC.

Never Told Why

Steele, a nuclear engineer with a degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was in charge of ensuring that the lab met federal nuclear facility requirements. He works for the Energy Department's National Nuclear Safety Administration, which oversees the nation's nuclear weapons complex.

Energy Department officials put Steele on administrative leave after he raised concerns about the unauthorized storage facility and broader questions about safety procedures involving the handling of radioactive materials, according to department memos and other internal documents.

In an interview, Steele said he was never told why he was being suspended.

"I am on paid administrative leave until they do a review. I have not been formally accused of anything," he said, declining to comment further.

Dennis Martinez, the Energy Department's second-ranking official at the lab site, said Steele was put on paid leave for reasons unrelated to his investigation of the unauthorized plutonium-waste storage facility, but he declined to provide any other explanation.

Meanwhile, lab and UC officials say they had no involvement with his suspension, adding that they considered Steele good at his job.

But Steele's advocacy on safety issues had infuriated lab officials -- technically UC employees -- and they in turn had complained about him to Energy Department officials, documents show. In e-mails between lab managers and department officials, obtained by The Times, a senior lab official said she was at "wit's end" over Steele's aggressive conduct, while another complained about his "confrontational ways."

Although lab officials say they played no role in Steele's suspension, they have long disputed his allegations about the unauthorized storage facility. In a September 2001 memo to Steele, a lab division director called his allegations a "misrepresentation of facts."

In interviews with The Times, lab officials stressed that they told the Energy Department about the storage violation in June 2001, as soon as they became aware of it. The officials said they could not explain why the problem went undiscovered for so long.

Steele's suspension was disclosed by the Project on Government Oversight, a nonprofit Washington watchdog group that has made public a wide range of information about problems at Los Alamos. The group was involved in publicizing the allegations of financial irregularities at the lab and the investigator firings.

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