The Case for Shutting LANL Down

Commentary by KAY MATTHEWS

Photo by Jakob Schiller

I recently went through LANL whistleblower Chuck Montaño’s files to separate what was in the public domain—newspaper and magazine articles, reports, lawsuit files, etc.—and what might be appropriate for the Southwest Archive at UNM, where he wanted to donate them. As I mentioned in my May 15 posting, “LANL: A Plague on Your House,” Chuck is writing a book about his life in Los Alamos and his tenure at LANL, which will tell the story of his confrontation with Los Alamos High School over a racist mural, a sexual harassment case against his wife’s employer, his participation in both the Hispanic Round Table and Citizens for LANL Employee Rights, and his nine months in “cubicle isolation” in 2002-3 as a victim of retaliation for trying to investigate procurement violations at the Lab.

Reading through all these files elicited an overwhelming feeling of futility. Article after article, year after year, reporters were writing about the same controversies surrounding the Lab: security breaches; mismanagement of funds; missing supplies; rip-offs; worker discrimination; impending Reductions in Force (RIFFs, or layoffs); worker retaliation; individual and class-action lawsuits; toxic spills; toxic emissions; failure to meet clean-up deadlines; and around 2005, the impending privatization of the Lab by the Bechtel consortium.

The underlying analysis often used to contextualize these controversies, less quantifiable but in the end more damning, is the  “culture of arrogance” believed to pervade not only LANL but the entire nuclear industry. Academics I’ve referenced before—Peter Bacon Hales, Jake Kosek, and Joseph Masco, examined it in their books. Whistleblowers Chuck Montaño and Joe Gutierrez, who is also writing a book, are documenting it. Watchdog groups file suit over it. Former U.S. Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman told Congress in 2007 that “Bureaucratic issues are not at the heart of the problem. The heart of the problem is a cultural issue at Los Alamos. . . . It’s arrogance. Arrogance of the chemists and physicists and engineers who work at Los Alamos and think they’re above it all.” And even former U.S. Senator Pete Domenici, the Lab’s head cheerleader for many years, was quoted saying that the Lab has acquired “a reputation as being both dysfunctional and politically untouchable.”

But is it the arrogance of the scientists, often the ones accused, or the arrogance of management, or both, that is the culprit? Lab scientists have written about what they think it is on two blogs “LANL: The Rest of the Story” and “LANL: The Corporate Story,” which were maintained from 2006 until 2010.

“The Rest Of the Story” was created by Doug Roberts, a 20-year computer scientist Lab veteran. In an interview Roberts said he was inspired to start the blog when he and his colleagues had their critical submissions to a forum on the laboratory’s online newspaper rejected. He estimated that between 200 and 500 Lab employees contributed to the blog, although it was set up to protect anyone’s identity if so desired.

Much of the conversation during the blog’s initiation was about the tenure of Lab director G. Peter Nanos, who shut LANL down for seven months from July 2004 to January of 2005 because of a security breach when two computer disks with secret information were reported missing (it turned out to be a clerical error instead; the disks never existed). The blog ran a petition for his removal; one of those who signed openly was Dr. Brad Lee Holian, a theoretical physicist, who was quoted as saying, “People were feeling like they were in a pressure cooker. Nanos is so abusive, not just to the general staff but his underlings. People were afraid to say anything. On the blog they could vent without fear of reprisal.”

Another scientist who posted on the blog was Dr. Thomas J. Meyer, a chemist who oversaw 2,000 employees as associate director of the Lab’s strategic research. He resigned during the shutdown and filed a long critique of Nano’s action: “He [Nanos] chose to transfer blame and intimidate individuals even with a staff that was often attempting to implement difficult and complex safety processes.” He called the director’s treatment of laboratory employees ”vindictive and abusive.”

Nanos ended up leaving LANL before Bechtel and the University of California corporate consortium took over management as Los Alamos National Security (LANS) in 2006. The venting about management continued unabated on the blogs. Some of the focus was directed at the National Nuclear Security Association (NNSA) director Tom D’Agostino.  The NNSA is a semiautonomous agency within the Department of Energy that oversees the country’s nuclear laboratories. D’Agostino was instrumental in awarding the management contract to LANS, which garnered a $200 million increase in the contract award fee and promised “increased efficiencies of operation.” (The University of California previously ran the Lab for $8 million a year.) According to the blog, gross receipts taxes to New Mexico account for some of the additional cost of operations, but most bloggers claimed that “increased efficiencies” never materialized, employee morale sank to its lowest levels ever, upper level management tripled in number, and NNSA Performance Reports of LANL management were declared to be 90 percent “Outstanding” while at the same time D’Agostino designated them “secret,” not for public review (Nuclear Watch New Mexico filed several lawsuits under the Freedom of Information Act to demand access).

LANL actually conducted an employee survey to assess employee satisfaction. Here are the results:

The leadership team is working together to advance the Laboratory mission: 37.75 %

Career opportunities at the Laboratory are good: 33.73 %

Laboratory managers set good examples: 27.58%

I have confidence in the leadership of the Laboratory: 28.69 %

The morale of my co-workers is good: 27.75 %

Laboratory managers consult employees about decisions that affect them: 25.42 %

The Laboratory rewards those who contribute most: 23.57 %

I believe that action will be taken on the results of this survey: 17.30 %

Other than revealing an abysmal relationship between management and staff, does this survey help us figure out whether the main culprit is inept and vindictive management or a scientific staff that feels it’s not being given a free enough hand?

Here’s what one blogger had to say:

“LANS is not being paid to make staff happy. LANS is being paid to follow NNSA’s directives to reduce staffing and narrow LANL’s mission to the point where Plutonium production operations is all that is done here. That said, it must be a bit awkward for [Michael] Anastasio [former LANL director and president of LANS] and all the top Bechtel-infused management to have placed themselves in the position of now having to release what are undoubtedly overwhelmingly negative job satisfaction survey results. What were they thinking to have conducted the survey in the first place? I suppose this is yet another bit of evidence which demonstrates the poor quality of lab management. As if we needed any more proof. On the other hand, how good do you have to be to manage RFS (Rocky Flats South)? [Rocky Flats, in Golden, Colorado, was the site of plutonium production until its closure and designation as a Super Fund site.]

“The incredibly low morale at LANL and the way employees feel about LANS management won’t ever change because NNSA won’t be going away. LANS is paid a handsome fee to do whatever NNSA wants, but NNSA is totally dysfunctional. Therefore, LANS is also dysfunctional. LANS can talk about “feeling your pain” or “listening to staff”, but it won’t change the poor working environmental, high project costs and crazy Work Free Safety Zone policies [the belief that management cares more about security and safety than scientific research] being forced down LANL’s throat. It’s these types of things that are wearing down the staff.

“There really are only two choices left at this point:
A) Learn to ignore the crumbling lab that is falling down around your feet, or…
B) Leave.”

This scientist believes the incompetence and arrogance extends to the highest levels of management, the NNSA and the DOE. Another blogger is specific about the DOE:

“[Bill] Richardson may be unhappy about the survey results, but only because they exist and will have to be made public. History shows that he has no problem with low morale at LANL, which he single-handedly created as Energy Secretary when he raked John Browne [former LANL director] over the coals in the wake of the Wen Ho Lee revelations [the scandal which ensued after the LANL scientist was accused of stealing U.S. nuclear secrets for the Republic of China December 1999 and exonerated on all but one count of improper handling of restricted data].

“Bill Richardson is a consummate politician, and as such will seize every opportunity to do what is best for Bill Richardson. No surprises here. Maybe he will see the poor performance of LANS as an opportunity to grab a few sound bites, publicly chastise Anastasio and LANS, and maybe even the NNSA over the morale issues they have created, and by so doing generate a few favorable vibes for himself.

“Or, more likely, he will just continue to toe the party line that ‘NNSA is doing a terrific job, and LANS is doing a terrific job; costs are down, productivity is up, and everybody is just thrilled to be working at LANL now that the troublesome UC has been kicked out.’”

Both bloggers believe that scientists are not valued because corporate greed has diminished the stature of the Lab. It’s interesting that the first blogger bemoans the fact that plutonium production, or the manufacture of the triggers for warheads, is becoming the raison d’etre at LANL. Does this mean that the scientist believes that the mission at LANL was, and should be, something much broader than weapons production, and that the brain trust there is being wasted and/or abused?

Here’s what another blogger answered:

“I’ve given the subject a great deal of thought, based in part on my 22 years of employment in that non-competitive, overly compensated environment you describe. Based also in part from my experiences working outside of LANL in truly competitive environments. I believe that LANL is so damaged by 65 years of ingrained, incestuous relationships with DOE and a few other government funding agencies that it cannot be repaired, or ‘regenerated’. LANL management after Harold Agnew [LANL director from 1970 to 1979] has been generally atrocious, and shows every sign of remaining that way.

“The new for-profit LANL contract so neatly prepared for us by DOE and the NNSA has, to no one’s great surprise, accelerated the rate of decline in management and staff quality at Los Alamos. The only solution that I believe has any chance of producing a respected DOE science laboratory in place of the current LANL is to shut Los Alamos down. Completely. And then start new somewhere else, paying careful attention to avoid all of the mistakes that current and past managers have made and continue to make.”

It would seem that the nuclear work at LANL is so dysfunctional that it doesn’t really matter who is to blame. But it still leads us back to some important questions: Will different management with a mission other than making bombs create a work environment that will utilize the brain trust there and fairly employ a local work force? What might that management look like? What kind of work is best suited for the physicists, chemists, and mathematicians whose careers hang in the balance? Is cleanup ever going to be a priority without declaring the Lab a Super Fund site? What employee rights need to be in place to ensure fair pay, training, and advancement for those whose livelihoods are dependent upon this institution, that in Montaño’s words, will never be accountable as it is now structured? Or, as the scientist cited above and various congressmen, sick workers, and anti-nuclear organizations have said is the only solution: shut it down.

 

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