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Big nuclear fine proposed for UC

July 14, 2007|Richard C. Paddock | Times Staff Writer

The U.S. Department of Energy on Friday proposed a record $3-million fine against the University of California for a security breach last year at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in which a worker took home classified documents on a thumb drive.

An investigation by the department's National Nuclear Security Administration concluded that security procedures implemented by UC were so lax that the contract employee was able to leave the New Mexico nuclear weapons lab with classified documents on her USB electronic storage device, also called a thumb drive, and with other documents she had reproduced at work on a copy machine.

The security breach was discovered in October when police responded to a domestic disturbance call at the trailer home of the employee, Jessica Quintana, and found the thumb drive and documents along with methamphetamine paraphernalia.

Investigators said they found 431 classified documents and devices with more than 1,200 classified pages at Quintana's home. Among the documents were some dealing with nuclear weapons design and nuclear weapons testing.

Quintana, 23, pleaded guilty in May to one count of removing classified material. She faces up to a year in prison and a $100,000 fine.

UC, which was the sole manager of the lab for more than 60 years but now runs it with a consortium of private companies, said it would contest the amount of the proposed $3-million fine, noting that the security breach occurred more than a month after the new management group took over June 1, 2006.

"We are going to respond to the department on this matter," said Chris Harrington, a spokesman for UC in Washington.

"Our response will point out that the university was no longer the sole manager of the laboratory when this incident occurred," Harrington said.

The new management group, Los Alamos National Security -- formed by UC, Bechtel National Inc. and other firms -- faces a proposed fine of $300,000.

Acting National Nuclear Security Administrator William C. Ostendorff called the stiff penalty against UC warranted because the security breach was serious.

Ostendorff wrote that the incident was "particularly troubling" because the breakdown in security procedures was similar to earlier deficiencies cited during UC's management of the lab.

Violations found by the inquiry included failing to eliminate USB ports from the lab's desktop computers despite an earlier pledge to do so; not following required procedures for escorting contract employees on the premises; and not conducting physical searches and inspections of employees.

"As revealed by this incident and the department's investigation, the University of California had systemic failures in establishing adequate work controls, consistently implementing these controls, assessing the effectiveness of its protection measures and improving the quality of these measures over time," Ostendorff wrote in a letter to UC that accompanied his agency's findings.

The proposed fine is more than half of the $5.8 million UC received in 2006 for managing the lab.

If the university is ultimately compelled to pay, Harrington said, the money will come from a laboratory reserve fund, not from funds used to educate students.

Los Alamos has a record of security and safety problems going back to 1999 and the Wen Ho Lee case.

More recently, the laboratory was shut down in 2004 for nearly six months after two classified computer disks were reported lost and an undergraduate intern was injured in a laser accident. Investigators later concluded that the supposedly missing disks had never existed.

The closure of the lab cost the federal government about $370 million.

The security and safety issues played a major part in the Energy Department's decision to end UC's management contract and invite new bids.

Ostendorff wrote that the Energy Department was proposing its toughest civil penalties ever in part because of "the history of UC's prior management deficiencies at the laboratory."

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