from Los Alamos:
Cultural Divide May Imperil Lab's Survival
American Physical Society
October 2004 Page 8
By Rhon Keinigs
Dear APS Members,
I was invited by the editor of APS News to write a letter giving a
personal perspective on recently reported news concerning security at
Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL). The opinions expressed herein
are solely my own, and in no manner should be construed to represent
the position of the laboratory or any other laboratory employee.
However, as a member of the LANL scientific community and as a
concerned citizen, I feel an obligation to respond to recent
allegations of an unsecured work place and a culture of disregard for
the rules. These allegations and the resulting responses they are
generating are having very negative effects on the morale of the LANL
workforce, and consequently, repercussions to National security.
I urge the scientific community to review the minutes of the July 13,
2004 hearings of the Energy and Air Quality (EAQ) Subcommittee of the
House Energy and Commerce Committee, from which much of the
information in this letter is drawn.1
Certainly LANL is experiencing a crisis of confidence and a critical
point in its history, in which the Lab will either survive as a
scientific institution, or it will not. LANL will either be able to
continue to attract the best people to work on national security
problems or it will not. To survive, the misconceptions of LANL as
being an unsafe, unsecured institution must be corrected, and the
reputations of many dedicated staff must be restored. A different
outcome could mean that all nuclear weapons research will be conducted
by our sister laboratory, Lawrence Livermore.
Since May the scientific staff of LANL has come under increasing fire
for being lax on security. This criticism is being led by members of
Congress, Ambassador Linton Brooks (head of the National Nuclear
Security Agency) and Los Alamos Director G. Peter Nanos, and has
resulted in headlines in the media such as "LANL Security Lapses
Called Rampant." 2
There are many other such messages being promulgated, and negative
repercussions from managerial responses generated by this criticism
are beginning to emerge.
Dedicated staff members are opting for, or seriously investigating,
early retirement. These are scientists and engineers with years of
critical National security knowledge that we will not be able to find
in any textbook. The departure of these people means a loss of
important mentoring for new staff members.
I have talked with several early-career PhD staff members who are
re-assessing their options. Their leaving will translate into a loss
of years of monetary and education investment by the Nation, and a
laboratory with a questionable future as a scientific organization.
I recently returned from recruiting in Virginia, where I talked to
engineering and physics PhD candidates about career opportunities at
LANL. From questions I received it is evident that there is
trepidation in beginning a career at Los Alamos, where there are so
many perceived problems. How did such a perception arise?
The latest flurry of criticism was initiated by reports of an
unaccounted for piece of Classified Removable Electronic Media (CREM).
According to Director G. Nanos this is viewed as a recurring theme at
LANL, and such continuing reports of security incidents have led to
"�a belief amongst some very powerful people in Congress that academic
culture and running a high security national laboratory are totally
incompatible and scientists can't be trusted." 3
Apparently a hypothesis has emerged that it is the long-standing
scientific culture of Los Alamos that is responsible for the present
situation at our institution.
Certainly, security and safety are critical elements of the
Laboratory's national security mission; if rules and regulations are
not followed, appropriate measures must be taken. However, the
suggestion that "scientists can't be trusted" is an unwarranted
generalization that is not supported by facts.
During the July 13 testimonies to the Energy and Air Quality
Subcommittee there were 22 references made to cultural problems at Los
Alamos National Laboratory, in the context of lapses in security. What
data supports declarations by Subcommittee members that "�security
incidents just keep happening, and happening, and happening." and
"...there continues to be an ongoing pattern of business management
failure and security problems. ?"
To my knowledge there has been only one serious CREM incident within
the last four years, in which classified removable electronic media
was actually missing.
I am referring of course to the missing hard-drives found behind a
copy machine, following the great Los Alamos fire of 2000. Pertaining
to the May 2004 incident, government authorities now believe that this
incident did not occur: "It appears to have been a false positive, the
system says something is missing when it is not."�Senator Pete
Domenici, as quoted in the Santa Fe New Mexican, July 22, 2004.
Every reported security incident must be treated seriously, but in
defense of my colleagues, one incident, particularly one that now
appears not to have occurred, does not define an ongoing pattern of
blatant disregard for the rules. It certainly does not define a
"culture" that is insensitive to security, as has been suggested by
one Congressional member of the EAQ Subcommittee, "... as Mr. Issa
[Darrell Issa (R- CA)] points out, perhaps these people don't realize,
these intellectual nuts or whatever they call them, these people don't
appreciate the sensitivity of what they're working on because they
work with it all the time."
This does not describe the culture I have come to know in my 23 years
at Los Alamos National Laboratory. We are acutely aware of the
ramifications of some of the research we conduct, and very attuned to
its protection. Although the final findings on the most recent
allegations of security problems at LANL have not yet been released,
evidence is pointing toward procedural problems associated with how
the Laboratory accounts for classified media.
The evidence does not support the hypothesis that there is a cultural
problem at Los Alamos that is attributable to the academic-like
atmosphere of the laboratory. Unfortunately, the initial response to
the latest reported incident has effectively shut down programmatic
work for several months, and resulted in administrative leave for 23
employees. In terms of cost to the taxpayer it is estimated that by
the time of full resumption of technical activities the total cost of
the shutdown could range anywhere from between $100M to $400M.
X Division, also known as the Applied Physics Division, is the
recognized center of the LANL nuclear weapons program. I have worked
in this division for 21 years, and like many of my colleagues I have
worked on both unclassified and classified research, and collaborated
with researchers throughout the laboratory. Everyone with whom I work
is trustworthy and dedicated and committed to performing his and her
work safely and securely. This is the only laboratory culture that I
know. There are security incidents that happen in a workplace of more
than 7000 employees, but to imply that these are the result of a
lab-wide culture is simply wrong. What is accurate, however, is that
there is a deepening divide developing at LANL and staff morale is
very low. This is being recognized outside of the laboratory: quoting
from the recent Nature article, "Fear and Loathing at Los Alamos," 4
"Nanos has blasted his own staff for what he termed a "cowboy culture"
at the laboratory; the tone of his public statements suggests a
frightening gulf between the leader and the led."
This gulf is principally the result of growing attitudes of mistrust
between the two parties, and it is being made even wider by several
members of Congress. Attitudes of mistrust toward the scientific staff
of Los Alamos are clearly present in comments made by members of the
Energy & Air Quality Subcommittee, and in testimony to this
One member said "�I would put every one of those 11 people that have
access under lock and key, and every one of those 200 people that have
access to that facility should be immediately given a lie detector
This statement was made nine days prior to the "false positive"
discovery reported on July 22.
Taken from testimony to the committee: "I believe there is something
about the Los Alamos culture that we have not yet beaten into
submission." Another Committee member's comments seem to condone the
use of fear tactics: " I was an FBI agent before I did this in the
late 80's.quite frankly I want a scientist afraid of these people. If
they came wandering by, I want them worried that they're not going to
be working there on something that they've dedicated their lives to
Sentiments such as these provide little comfort to the LANL community;
particularly those employees that have been put on administrative
leave. But, the ramifications of "beating a culture into submission"
and "wanting scientists to be afraid" extend far beyond the boundaries
of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, and should be of concern to the
entire scientific community. It is my opinion that such attitudes and
some of the resultant measures being taken at LANL will ultimately
negatively impact our ability to fulfill our National security
mission, making it very difficult to attract and maintain a productive
Personally, I know of no scientist who would willingly work in such a
Some final thoughts and my analysis of the present situation at Los
Alamos National Laboratory: A new policy embracing the three
imperatives of Awareness, Intolerance, and Determination (AID)5 has
been emplaced by our director, and it has been made clear that every
member of the laboratory work-force must understand and operate under
1. We must ensure an awareness of our work environment and strict
adherence to the rules and procedures for safety, security and
2. We must be intolerant of those who put co-workers, the
Laboratory and the country at risk, and
3. We must be determined to build on a foundation of excellence.
Certainly, paramount to the Laboratory's ability to carry out its
fundamental National security mission is excellence in science. The
potential for losing this excellence is recognized by U. of California
President Robert Dynes and was addressed during his recent visit to
the Laboratory: "As we look to the future, my (Dynes) primary concern
is, how do we maintain the quality of science? I believe this is what
drives everything else." 6
I fully concur. From my analysis of the present situation at Los
Alamos I can only conclude that several measures being undertaken to
address security issues are running the potential risk of driving away
the very scientific culture that forms the backbone of the work we
perform at the laboratory in the National interest.
- Rhon Keinigs is a long-time staff member at Los Alamos. His research
interests are in plasma physics, shock wave interactions in solids,
and dynamic material properties of metals.
1. Hearing of the Energy and Air Quality Subcommittee of the House
Energy and Commerce Committee, July 13, 2004, c Copyright 2004 by
Federal News Service, Inc.
2. The Albuquerque Journal, headline of July 21. 2004.
3. G. Peter Nanos, (guest commentary: "Crisis at LANL affects all
of us") Albuquerque Journal North, Aug.4, 2004
4. Nature, Vol. 430, Aug 12, 2004.
5. Los Alamos Newsletter for the week of Aug.2, 2004: "Nanos'
latest message to employees: Awareness, intolerance and determination".
6. Los Alamos Newsletter for the week of Aug. 16, 2004.