Security data shows LANL not the worst offender

By DIANA HEIL The New Mexican

    Add up all the security lapses reported from 2002 through 2004 at the country’s four major nuclearresearch labs, and you’ll find the highest number of serious threats happened at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California.
    However, Los Alamos National
Laboratory was close behind.
    The data, recently made public by the U.S. Department of Energy, is helping fuel a debate over whether LANL Director Pete Nanos overreacted last year when he disrupted work at Los Alamos for six months for a top-to-bottom review of security and safety.
    Nanos’ action, which came in the wake of a series of scandals and Congressional criticism, affected
everyone from cafeteria workers to chemists. He halted normal lab activities after learning a student intern had injured her eye in a laser accident and the lab couldn’t account for two computer disks thought to contain top-secret information.
    Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham extended the work stoppage to Sandia National Laboratories and Lawrence Livermore. However, the “stand down” at those labs lasted for
only a few weeks.
    As the months dragged on at Los Alamos, however, disgruntled workers began researching comparisons of lab safety records.
    “Many don’t fully understand why what we have been through was nec
essary,” Nanos wrote in a recent letter to LANL employees, “and many think that some lesser response would have been sufficient.
    Those are valid feelings and opinions and will either be upheld or fade over time. What is beyond dispute is that this was a time of uncertainty and hard work.”
    Potentially dangerous incidents
occur frequently at Los Alamos, Livermore and Sandia, which is based in Albuquerque and has a secondary facility California. However, the public only hears about a few of them.
    The New Mexican last July asked the U.S. Department of Energy for data on Los Alamos, Livermore and Sandia — the nation’s labs most involved in nuclear weapons.
    The latest security data, provided late last month, shows:
    Investigators have confirmed a higher number of serious security incidents at Livermore than at Los Alamos.

    Out of a total of 87 confirmed security incidents from 2002 through 2004 at Livermore, 35 were rated Category 1 — meaning the department considers them to pose the most serious threats to national-security interests and could possibly create serious security situations. That doesn’t mean that something egregious happened; it just means it could have happened.
    Nine other reported incidents at Livermore are still under investigation.
    At Los Alamos, meanwhile, out of a total of 103 confirmed security incidents at Los Alamos, 22 were rated Category 1. Investigations of 39 other reported incidents are pending.

    Category 1 incidents can be as simple as unattended security containers, or classified information loaded on an unclassified computer system.
    In the three-year period that ended Dec. 31, Sandia in Albuquerque reported the most confirmed security incidents of all types: 160. But 70 percent of those were Category 3, the lowest threat level that must be reported.
    Category 3 incidents could pose threats to security interests or potentially degrade the overall effectiveness of the agency’s safeguards and security-protection program, according to the report. Just bringing a camera or tape recorder into a security area could be considered a Category 3 incident.
    For all four labs combined, the number of serious incidents each year has increased since 2002.

Making comparisons
Los Alamos, Livermore and Sandia share one mission, but each place is quite different in organization, physical size and culture, Livermore spokesman David Schwoegler said in an interview.
    The University of California operates Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore. Meanwhile, Lockheed Martin Corp. operates Sandia, with sites in New Mexico and California.
    They all go about their business differently. What works at one place might not work at another, Schwoegler said.
    Furthermore, the way the labs keep track of security violations doesn’t match up.
Labs must categorize suspected security incidents (on a scale of one to three) within 24 hours and report them to DOE in Washington, D.C. But the system doesn’t make comparisons easy.
    “Their criteria doesn’t call for uniformity,” Schwoegler said.
Pointing fingers
Some Los Alamos workers are trying to make a case for Nanos’ resignation, according to dialogue on “LANL: The Real Story,” an Internet blog started by a lab employee.
    They question whether the world’s oldest nuclearweapons lab deserved the punishment it received, or if Los Alamos was simply under more intense scrutiny than the other facilities.
    Lab workers using the site question whether Nanos’ decision this summer to suspend
routine work activities was reasonable. They say it cost millions of dollars as well as hurt productivity and morale.
    The Department of Energy eventually concluded that two computer disks it feared were missing actually never existed. However, the resulting federal investigations brought to light numerous weaknesses.
    Behind the scenes, a war of statistics has been waged.
    Last year, lab employee Brad Lee Holian charted the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s injury rates of national labs and private industry. Los Alamos came off looking fairly good.

    Holian concluded that shutting down most activities, from the library and cafeteria to the chemistry labs — was an overblown reaction, and he spread his views through National Public Radio, newspapers and Physics Today.
    But Lee McAtee, division leader for Health, Safety and Radiation Protection at LANL, countered Holian’s view.
    “Like most statistics, those relating to safety can be presented in many ways to support just about any message, and there are a number of complexities that are difficult to completely analyze,” McAtee wrote in an opinion piece for The New Mexican.
    McAtee said the lab’s safety record wasn’t good enough: The injury rate had improved dramatically since 1996, but lately it had been getting worse again. “As long as the injury rate remains above zero, there’s room for improvement, and it’s time well spent
to identify and address risks and potential vulnerabilities,” McAtee wrote.
    Holian’s analysis focused on one aspect of safety — occupational hazards documented by OSHA. However, the lab’s record in nuclear safety was much worse — and arguably much scarier — than trips, slips and falls, according to
the Energy Department office at Los Alamos.
    Over the past six months, the lab has studied its weaknesses in safety and security and made numerous changes. It has created centralized libraries for classified electronic materials (such as computer disks), and reduced the number of classified objects
in its inventory.
    “We’ve made a dramatic shift in how we handle (computer disks and other classified electronic materials),” Los Alamos spokesman Jim Fallin said in a recent interview. “I think we have set a new standard for ourselves, and possibly set a new standard for the complex.”

Graphic was compiled from three years worth of security data from the U.S. Department of Energy on Los Alamos, Lawrence Livermore and Sandia laboratories. Source: National Nuclear Security Administration. The New Mexican