The University of California has placed 19 employees at the Los Alamos National Laboratory on paid investigatory leave pending a federal probe into missing classified material at the lab, George “Pete” Nanos, the lab director, announced at a Thursday pre ss conference.
Nanos declined to give a timeline for restarting classified research at the country’s premier weapons lab, which he halted last week following the discovery of two missing discs from a safe.
The discs contained information that required m id-level security protections, Nanos said. He refused to elaborate on the discs’ contents and cautioned that there was no evidence of espionage in their disappearance. All of the 11 lab employees who had the access code to the safe are among the 19 placed on leave.
The scandal is the latest in a series of administrative embarrassments to jolt the UC-managed lab over the past five years. With the Department of Energy ordering a competition for management of the lab in the coming months, the missing discs will likely make UC a longshot to retain control of the lab when its contract expires in 2005.
Nanos, a retired vice admiral hired last year to restore order, blamed the security failures on the lab’s lax culture, which, he said, in spite of the uproar o ver the current security breach, remains embedded among some of the nation’s top scientists.
“There is almost a suicidal denial of the facts that exist in Los Alamos and the reaction of the country to them,” he said.
In meeting with lab employees Thursd ay morning, Nanos said he warned them that if they didn’t adhere to safety and security protocols, the government would shift its research dollars to other sites.
“I think that comes as a surprise to some [at the lab] but it’s starting to sink in,” he sa id.
UC Vice President Robert Foley bashed a lack of accountability and culture of entitlement at the lab. “This is absolutely unacceptable that people who don’t follow the rules keep their positions,” he said.
Foley’s charge mirrored those of Energy Sec retary Spencer Abraham, who Tuesday issued a statement blasting lab employees for not understanding the gravity of the situation and threatening to fire managers. He requested to the FBI to join a “wall-to-wall” hunt for the missing discs.
To prevent further security breaches, Nanos announced that custodians of classified materials would be transferred to the security office. Previously, he said, some custodians worked for groups within the 12,000-employee lab that would have been positioned to pressure them “not to do their job properly.”
Also, UC announced that it had appointed Jack Killeen, most recently the General Manager of the DOE Central Training Academy, to the newly created position of special assistant for Los Alamos National Laboratory secu rity.
The missing discs come on the heels of other recent scandals at the lab. In 1999, lab scientist Wen Ho Lee was accused of copying nuclear secrets, and in 2002, several management abuses were uncovered, including a widespread practice of buying per sonal goods on the lab’s account.
The UC Board of Regents hasn’t decided whether or not to compete for management of the lab. A faculty poll released last May showed two-thirds of professors favored trying to retain control.
Nanos said the troubles plaguing the lab run deeper than management. “It’s no longer an issue of competition,” he said. “It’s an issue of survival.”