Skip to comments.Congressional committee scrutinizes LANL security (NM - Los Alamos Lab)
Posted on 02/03/2007 5:32:11 PM PST by CedarDave
WASHINGTON (AP) - Fed-up lawmakers on a House oversight committee said Tuesday they want to strip a federal nuclear agency of its security responsibilities and threatened to shut down Los Alamos National Laboratory to correct a decade of security lapses there.
Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., said he has sat through nearly a decade of hearings in which the Energy Department and the northern New Mexico nuclear weapons lab have promised to fix security problems.
"I've been hearing these promises for a long time, and they've become somewhat tedious," he said.
Lawmakers blistered the lab for its most recent security breach in which a contract worker walked out with hundreds of pages of classified documents. The documents turned up during a drug raid last October involving a man who rented a room at the worker's home.
Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, said that if problems cannot be solved this time, he will ask that Los Alamos lab, the birthplace of the atomic bomb, be shut down.
"There is an absolute inability and unwillingness to address the most routine security issues at this laboratory," Barton said.
Barton, Dingell and others on the House Energy and Commerce Committee introduced a measure Tuesday to strip the National Nuclear Security Administration of its primary security responsibilities and turn them back to the Energy Department because of concerns that NNSA has not fixed security problems at Los Alamos despite spending tens of millions of dollars on improvements.
"NNSA was a management experiment gone wrong," Barton said.
Throughout Tuesday's four-hour hearing, lawmakers repeatedly asked why the lab needs to exist and whether it simply has too much responsibility for too many secret materials.
Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., called for a comprehensive audit of all services at Los Alamos. He wants to evaluate whether its mission is too large and whether many of the classified operations should be moved to another lab.
"I will not tolerate continued security lapses and a thumbing of their noses at Congress," he said.
A new management team was installed at Los Alamos less than a year ago, in part to reverse years of security and safety problems.
Administration officials urged lawmakers to give the new managers more time to turn things around.
Deputy Energy Secretary Clay Sell also said Los Alamos probably could not be replaced or duplicated. It is the only place where plutonium pits for weapons can be made. Virtually everything that happens at Los Alamos is secret because the lab is responsible for the bulk of the strategic nuclear weapons stockpile, he said.
Sell promised that stronger security is possible.
"It appears to me the tail's wagging the dog," said a skeptical Rep. Charlie Melancon, D-La.
"It has been suggested that we shoot the dog," Sell responded. "I have to reject that suggestion in the strongest possible way. It is my view we have to have Los Alamos."
The embarrassing October incident involving the classified documents resulted in a shake-up in the NNSA, which oversees the lab. Linton Brooks, already reprimanded for an earlier incident, resigned earlier this month as head of the NNSA.
Lab officials have said none of the material found during the drug raid was top secret. A lawyer for the employee, a 22-year-old archivist, has said she took it home to catch up on work.
Security problems at the lab date back to the late 1990s. They include the disappearance of two hard drives containing classified material that later were found behind a copying machine and the disappearance of two computer disks that forced a virtual shutdown of Los Alamos for months in 2004. It later was learned those two disks never existed.
Eric Fairfield gets calls from people who want to leave town. David Carroll is tired of a few people making all of Los Alamos National Laboratory look bad. And Brad Lee Holian says morale has never been worse.
These current or former lab scientists had a lot to say at the end of a rough week for the lab, capped by Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman's comment that "arrogance" among lab scientists contributes to security problems there.
Bodman's comments, made to a House subcommittee, prompted an unusually strong reaction from lab scientists and many anonymous comments at an employee Web log called "LANL -- The Corporate Story."
"It's really interesting that all of the screw-ups are our fault and that (the Department of Energy) and (National Nuclear Security Administration) don't have any culpability in it," said Carroll, a scientist with 38 years at Los Alamos.
He said nearly all the people at the lab take security responsibility seriously but don't get credit for it. "And something goes wrong that's caused by one or two people. ... That gets smeared over all of us," he said.
The FBI has investigated how classified documents ended up last fall at the home of a former lab contract worker. No one has been charged with a crime, but 24 people at the lab have been disciplined.
Former scientist Eric Fairfield is now a financial consultant who advises people on money and how to get a new job. "I get a lot of calls saying, 'Get me the hell out of here,' " he said. But Fairfield said the lab can be run well in the presence of headstrong scientists.
Holian said people "are absolutely incredulous" that they would be hearing the same kind of talk years after former director Pete Nanos shut the lab down to review safety and security procedures.
"It's never been worse," Holian said of worker morale. "And that includes Nanos' shutdown. It's a real low." He also said people are "appalled" that no one seems to be defending the lab.
(more at link)
DOE/NNSA had an opportunity to make a real change when the operating contract went out for bid, but they chose more of the same by awarding the contract to the UC-Berkeley team.
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