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Safety and Security Breaches at Los Alamos Nuclear Lab Cost 5 Their Jobs

Officials take action as part of an investigation into lapses at the weapons facility. Several questions remain.

September 16, 2004|Rebecca Trounson | Times Staff Writer

Los Alamos National Laboratory has fired four workers who were implicated in recent security and safety breaches at the nuclear weapons facility, its director said Wednesday. A fifth employee will resign or be dismissed.

The fired workers were among 23 suspended this summer in connection with two incidents at the New Mexico facility in July: the reported disappearance of two classified computer disks from the lab and a laser accident that injured a student intern.

The incidents prompted officials at Los Alamos and the University of California, which runs the facility for the federal government, to halt operations July 16. Since then, some work has resumed, but many of the lab's most sensitive operations have not, officials said.

In a memo sent Wednesday to Los Alamos employees, director G. Peter Nanos said the lab had completed its internal inquiries into the missing disks and the laser accident. Though outside agencies are continuing to investigate, he said lab officials felt they had enough information to take action against those they considered responsible.

Three workers will leave the lab in connection with the missing disks. Two others will lose their jobs because of the accident in which a laser damaged one of the intern's eyes.

Of the 18 remaining employees, who have been on leave, seven will keep their jobs but be subject to disciplinary actions, including demotions, reductions in salary, suspensions without pay or written reprimands, the memo said. One employee remains on investigatory leave. Ten others will return to work without a finding of wrongdoing.

Lab officials declined to identify the fired workers or discuss specifics of their cases. But they said those disciplined included management and staff-level employees and people with varying amounts of tenure.

The firings "were very difficult decisions for director Nanos to make," Los Alamos spokesman James Fallin said.

But in each case, Fallin said, the infractions "involved more than simply not following the rules." He said he could not be more specific.

But the dismissals also raised questions Wednesday, because they followed unconfirmed reports that the computer disks might not have been missing and that an inventory error had occurred. In a statement last month, Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.) said lab officials had told him the report of the loss might have been a mistake -- a "false positive," he said. Los Alamos officials would not confirm the account.

Fallin said again Wednesday that he could not comment on the report, saying investigations were not complete.

But Danielle Brian, who heads a government watchdog group that often has been critical of the lab's management, questioned the dismissals. "If there wasn't anything actually missing, why are people getting fired?" she asked.

In his memo, Nanos wrote that he had ordered the lab closed in July not only because of the two incidents but 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."

Activities at the lab have slowly resumed, officials said, but the most sensitive operations, including those involving classified data on removable devices, have yet to restart. Fallin said he expected all work to resume within a few weeks.

Los Alamos has been managed by the University of California for 61 years. The contract is up for bid next year, and the university has not decided whether to compete for it.

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