A Nuclear Lab's 'Cowboy Culture'

Times Staff Writer

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.

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.

Law enforcement officials who have investigated previous security lapses at the lab have long recognized the cultural problems at the root of the current crisis.

"There was definitely a cultural problem with the scientists who disregarded security precautions," said Scott Larson, a former FBI agent who investigated the Wen Ho Lee security case in 1999. He is a managing director at security consulting firm Stroz Friedberg. "There have been years now of problems with missing disks and other security violations."

Another force that has shaped Los Alamos is the political support it receives from the New Mexico congressional delegation, said Phil Coyle, who was deputy director at Livermore and later rose to a top position at the Defense Department.

"They have always been able to turn to the New Mexico delegation," Coyle said. "So that has given them an avenue of appeal that Livermore and others did not have."

The California congressional delegation is more diffuse. And because Livermore is just one of many high-profile institutions in California, it doesn't garner the support that Los Alamos receives in its state, particularly from Domenici, chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

On Friday, Domenici issued an open letter that acknowledged he wrongly had protected the lab for years.

"I have found myself increasingly defending the laboratory for failures of basic management ... and security. While critics have carped, I have worked to ensure that none of the attacks harmed the laboratory, but that effort has come at great cost. Today, in Washington, Los Alamos' reputation as a crown jewel of science is being eclipsed by a reputation as being both dysfunctional and untouchable."

Another difference between the two labs is that Livermore is subject to the tough scrutiny of watchdog group Tri-Valley CAREs -- Communities Against a Radioactive Environment -- which is constantly pressuring the lab and filing suits. It represents surrounding neighborhoods whose interests often diverge sharply from the Energy Department's agenda.

"It isn't completely the case of a good lab versus a bad lab, but there does appear to be a difference of degrees between the two labs," said Marylia Kelley, director of the watchdog group.

Foley said the watchdog group had had a beneficial effect.

"There were a lot of pressures that forced the lab to look inward," he said.

Los Alamos has resisted not only external critics, but internal ones. Those who have blown the whistle at the lab say management is aware of the problems stemming from the closed culture.

"It's self-preservation," said Glenn Walp, the former head of the Pennsylvania State Police who took over security at the lab and then was fired after he uncovered financial fraud. He later filed a lawsuit against the lab and last year received a $930,000 settlement.

Walp was hardly alone.

"If people don't feel safe in speaking out, you're not going to change the culture," said Chuck Montano, a 26-year veteran at the lab.

Montano said he was stripped of job duties eight months ago. His mistake, he said, was conducting an audit that showed as many as 35% of employees were not following purchasing rules. The study was requested by managers in the aftermath of earlier purchasing scandals.

Montano now passes time surfing the Web and reading newspapers, and e-mailing Nanos and other managers, begging for an assignment that might justify his $82,000 salary. No one has replied.

"It's like Chinese water torture," he said. "I can take a nap all day and nobody would know. I don't even know who I'm supposed to be reporting to."

Others who have taken on the lab report similar treatment.

Deesh Narang, a specialist in nuclear regulatory compliance, said he had been "unassigned" for seven years since suing the lab for passing him over for a promotion. Awarded more than $500,000 in that case, he later won an internal retaliation grievance that accused the lab of wasting taxpayer money for paying his $100,000 annual salary but giving him nothing to do.

Narang, who applied for 50 positions, remains nothing more than a "demoralized" file clerk. He has filed another grievance against the lab, which he says has already spent more than $1.5 million fighting him.

"The lab is known for defending itself," he said. "Other people are scared to report anything because they see cases like mine and they know what will happen to them."

Independent experts worry that as Los Alamos tightens security, it also could harm its research capability.

Paul Jennings, a Caltech professor who just completed a report on Los Alamos and Livermore for the National Academy of Sciences, worried that if the balance between open research and security was not carefully maintained, the nation would lose a premier scientific institution.

"If you only emphasize security," Jennings said, "you will not be able to attract a highly capable workforce. Good people will go someplace else."

As the FBI and internal security staff investigate the missing disks, managers at Los Alamos are conducting face-to-face meetings with every employee to drive home the message that security procedures must be strictly followed. Reopening the lab could take many weeks, and possibly months for some divisions.

And, at more than two dozen other national laboratories and nuclear facilities across the country, normal operations will not resume until security procedures are reviewed, inventories are taken and the security of computer disks and other removable devices are assured.

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.
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