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Head of Troubled Los Alamos Lab Resigns

Times Staff Writers

The former Navy admiral hired two years ago to fix security and safety breaches in the nuclear weapons program at Los Alamos National Laboratory resigned Friday, amid continuing tumult and political controversy.

G. Peter Nanos, director of the lab, took credit in a statement Friday for restoring order and strengthening the 14,000-employee organization, but critics said the massive facility on a remote plateau in New Mexico was in greater disarray than ever and deserved to be shut down.

The lab, managed by the University of California since the invention of the atomic bomb during World War II, plays a central role in assuring the safety of the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile for the Department of Energy and produces a small number of plutonium bomb components at a high-security facility.

Nanos, a retired vice admiral, tried to rein in what critics called a cowboy culture and to give scientists a dose of Navy discipline. Instead, he triggered a rebellion within some of the technical staff. An Internet petition calling for his resignation was signed by dozens of scientists, though most did so anonymously.

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UC named Robert W. Kuckuck, a nuclear physicist retired from another UC-managed facility -- Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California -- as interim director. Livermore is the nation’s second nuclear weapons design center. Kuckuck said in an interview that he expected to run Los Alamos for the next eight months, until UC’s contract to operate the lab ended. UC officials are deciding whether to compete for the next contract.

Officials at UC praised Nanos, who will leave May 16, and said his decision was voluntary.

Nanos said in a written statement that he was leaving to work at the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, a Pentagon organization that handles nuclear proliferation, testing and disarmament issues. A spokesman at the agency said Nanos did not yet have a job title but would “help plan and administer research and development directions.”

Nanos was not available for interviews Friday.

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When he took over at Los Alamos in January 2003, the lab was mired in financial mismanagement and allegations that its internal security was riddled with holes.

Nanos had promised to implement tough policies to fix those problems and gained strong support in Congress, but last year a series of security breaches resulted in the lab being shut down for much of the year.

Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), a member of the House Energy Department’s oversight and investigations committee, has begun questioning whether the lab, which has a $2.2 billion annual budget, should be shut down and its work transferred to other institutions.

“Why do we have this lab and what is so unique in its nuclear research that it could not be done someplace else?” Stupak asked in an interview Friday. “I have been a member of Congress for 13 years and we have had problems at this lab the entire time.”

Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.), chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, has long protected the lab. But last year he issued a stinging rebuke to the organization.

Phil Coyle, a former high-ranking Pentagon official and former deputy director of Livermore, said Nanos lacked the scientific credentials and deep knowledge of atomic weapons that a director of Los Alamos or Livermore should have to command the respect of the technical staff.

“He was an unfortunate choice in the first place,” Coyle said. “The science comes first. That’s why we have these labs.”

To Nanos’ credit, the lab reduced its administrative costs and restarted the production of plutonium pits during his tenure, among other accomplishments.

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However, Nanos was sharply criticized by many Los Alamos employees for the lengthy suspension last year after the lab thought -- mistakenly, it turned out -- it had lost a computer drive with classified information. Parts of the lab’s weapons programs were shut down in 2004 from July 16 to Jan. 31. The Energy Department is refusing to reimburse UC for about $14 million of the cost of that shutdown, but UC officials say they are providing additional documentation to show that the money should be repaid.

In April 2003, the Department of Energy cited “systemic management failures” by UC in announcing that the government for the first time would hold an open competition for the Los Alamos contract when the current deal expired. UC officials say the university’s regents will decide whether to bid after Energy Department officials release a final request for proposals in the next few weeks. Two leading defense contractors, Lockheed Martin, which manages Sandia National Laboratory, and Northrop Grumman, recently announced that they planned to compete for the Los Alamos job.

George Chandler, who retired four years ago as a physicist at the lab and now practices law in Los Alamos, said Nanos and his predecessors did not handle safety and security problems correctly.

“They come in and impose administrative fixes,” Chandler said. “The problem is people are blase about security. They will require more tracking, adding another layer of paperwork.”

Douglas Roberts, a Los Alamos chemist who created an Internet blog that aired employee complaints, said many were “anxious to put this bad period behind us.”

Coyle praised Kuckuck as an able scientist and manager. “He’ll work well with bureaucrats in Washington and scientists at the lab,” he said.

But Peter Stockton, a longtime nuclear weapons investigator who is now with the Washington watchdog group Project on Government Oversight, said Kuckuck is “part of the old boys club” that created much of the flawed security culture that affected the national labs. “He is a terrible choice,” Stockton said.

In an interview, Kuckuck, who will earn $355,800 a year as interim director, acknowledged “discord and concerns” at the lab and said he wanted to start to solve those problems.

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Kuckuck said it was too early to say whether he would reverse any of the policies that Nanos put in place.

“It’s premature for me to say what I will change,” Kuckuck said.

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Staff writer Rebecca Trounson contributed to this article.


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