Questions Raised on Suspension at Los Alamos Lab

Times Staff Writer

Leaders of a congressional committee looking into allegations of mismanagement and a possible cover-up at Los Alamos National Laboratory on Wednesday asked Energy Department officials to explain the recent suspension of a senior safety manager at the lab.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee asked the department's National Nuclear Security Administration for a briefing on the status of Christopher Steele, a 10-year veteran at Los Alamos who was suspended in November after he pursued an investigation into unsafe storage of radioactive materials at the lab, a committee spokesman said.

"We want to get to the bottom of this as quickly as possible," spokesman Ken Johnson said of the request by committee chairman Rep. W.J. "Billy" Tauzin (R-La.) and Rep. James C. Greenwood (R-Pa.). Greenwood heads the oversight panel that is investigating the lab.

Steele has said he was not told why he was placed on paid administrative leave. Energy Department officials said the reasons were not related to the safety manager's dogged investigation into the lab's use -- for five years -- of an unauthorized steel shed for the storage of plutonium-contaminated waste, but declined to provide any other explanation.

The Project on Government Oversight, a watchdog group that disclosed the safety officer's suspension, welcomed the congressional action. "It is about time somebody found out why Steele was suspended," said Peter Stockton, an investigator with the group.

The latest activity comes against a backdrop of increased federal scrutiny of Los Alamos, which is operated by the University of California under contract to the Energy Department. The FBI and several congressional committees are looking into allegations of financial improprieties and mismanagement at the lab, along with claims of a cover-up levied by two investigators who were fired by the lab last year.

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