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A Nuclear Lab's 'Cowboy Culture'

A U.S. senator says he has wrongly protected the Los Alamos facility, which is known as 'both dysfunctional and politically untouchable.'

July 25, 2004|Ralph Vartabedian and Christine Hanley | Times Staff Writer

LOS ALAMOS, N.M. — Some of the scientists and engineers who design the nation's nuclear bombs are sporting an odd bumper sticker on their cars in the remote mountain community at Los Alamos National Laboratory: "Striving for a Work-free Safe Zone."

The message -- which has angered managers all the way to Washington -- underscores a feeling among some workers that the people running the lab care more about security and safety than scientific research. And it is a glaring reflection of the gulf that has opened between executives at Energy Department headquarters in the Forestall Building on Independence Avenue and the iconoclastic scientists at the lab 1,900 miles away.

Ten days ago, the Los Alamos lab was shut down after reports of fresh security breaches. By Monday, the shutdown will have spread to include nuclear facilities in California, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas.

Lab managers -- including Los Alamos Director G. Peter Nanos -- members of Congress and Washington bureaucrats see the bumper stickers as more proof of a "cowboy culture" in which scientists treat security and safety rules like a joke.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday July 28, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 67 words Type of Material: Correction
Nuclear weapons research -- A headline on a Section A article Saturday about the nation's nuclear weapons complex said facilities had been closed. In fact, work at the sites had been curtailed, but the sites themselves had not been shut down. In addition, a Section A article Sunday on the same topic referred to Energy Department headquarters in the Forestall Building. It is the James Forrestal Building.

The Los Alamos shutdown came after the loss of two computer disks that contained classified information. Investigators are rummaging through 2,000 safes for the missing disks, but so far have come up empty-handed. The incident is one of many that have hit the lab over the last decade.

Nanos says that many of his employees are engaged in "suicidal denial," failing to grasp that the very existence of the lab is at risk. At the polar extreme are some employees who say the lab has devolved into a snake pit of retribution and that managers are preoccupied with minor security problems.

Nanos, who took over the lab in early 2003 after the prior director resigned amid a series of financial and security scandals, has tried to make changes. But he has met strong resistance and now is bluntly warning employees that he will fire anybody who breaks the rules.

The standoff reflects a long history of problems with not only security, but financial fraud, alleged espionage and mismanagement that have tarnished the image of the lab that developed the first atomic bomb during World War II and long symbolized American technological supremacy. The lab designed most of the nation's nuclear weapons and today plays a key role in ensuring the safety and reliability of the stockpile.

But Los Alamos has acquired "a reputation as being both dysfunctional and politically untouchable," according to its chief benefactor, New Mexico Republican Sen. Pete V. Domenici.

It is not obvious why among the dozens of national laboratories operated by such agencies as the Energy, Commerce, Agriculture and Defense departments and NASA that the Los Alamos lab should be the hotbed of discord and revolt.

Experts say the lab is inbred, protected politically by a fawning New Mexico congressional delegation and somewhat isolated from outside watchdogs that often force other labs to confront critics on a regular basis.

Although Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in the Bay Area has had its share of controversy, it has avoided the kind of security lapses that become national news.

Los Alamos and Livermore are both managed by the University of California, which has become like a perplexed parent of two very different children -- one well-behaved and the other always getting into trouble -- said S. Robert Foley, vice president for the university's laboratory management.

"Los Alamos is isolated and remote, and that is how their thinking has evolved," Foley said. "They are like school kids. It is cool to flaunt authority and you intimidate the other kids trying to do their school work."

"On the Hill," as New Mexicans have dubbed the isolated plateau about 30 miles west of the state's capitol, nearly every last person in the community of 20,000 works at the lab or is related to someone who does.

They go to the same churches, shop at the same stores, put their kids in the same schools and socialize together. At lunchtime, when they spill out of buildings and into sidewalk cafes and the local Starbucks in the center of town, they can be overheard swapping scientific theories and other shoptalk.

"You've got to make sure you ask for the nonphysics section when you go out to eat, or you'll get stuck listening to the nerds talking about analytical physics," said Jan Jennings, a Santa Fe real estate agent who worked at the lab as a budget analyst for years until she grew tired of the monochromatism. "The laboratory is the town," she said.

Jennings and other current and former employees question whether Nanos, or anyone for that matter, will be able to get everyone to play by the rules in this close-knit, campus-like environment.

The geographic isolation of Los Alamos has also meant that its employees have less contact with universities and private corporations than those at Livermore, which is close to both UC Berkeley and Stanford University.

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