Monday, January 10, 2005

1/8/2005 Albuquerque Journal Op-Ed piece

The Journal ran this piece after Ralph Damiani, Editor of the Los Alamos Monitor refused to. It has been noted by many people how Damiani prefers to run articles that portray LANL in a favorable light, and will go to some lengths to avoid having anything critical of LANL appear in his local small-town paper.

Albuquerque Journal
Guest Column
Saturday, January 8, 2005

Scientist Weighs In: LANL Shutdown Wasn't Justified

By Brad Lee Holian
Theoretical Physicist

Los Alamos National Laboratory Director Pete Nanos took the unilateral action of completely shutting down the lab after a security incident and then a safety incident last July.

Was a complete shutdown necessary? Was it worth it?

The recent security difficulties at LANL began with the Wen Ho Lee incident about six years ago. That was quickly followed by the missing hard drives in 2000 and, in July 2004, the missing CREM (classified removable electronic media).

At the end of the Wen Ho Lee matter, we found that no Red Chinese spy had burrowed into the lab, and if there was a security leak about a Los Alamos-designed nuclear weapon, it wasn't from anyone at Los Alamos.

The hard drives were found behind a copying machine, and no national secrets were deemed lost.

The "missing" CREM from last summer was soon found to be a procedural inventory error­ once again with no secrets lost.

These were not trivial matters by any means, but they did not live up to the level of political hype that roared like wildfire through the national media. Likewise, the "millions of dollars of fraudulent purchases" that were supposed to have occurred at LANL a couple of years ago turned out to be about $200,000, out of an annual budget of more than $2 billion­ that is, less than 1 one-hundredth of a percent.

Again, this fraud, perpetrated by two lab employees (one a manager), was surely no small matter; both men were indicted and both pleaded guilty. But to put this into perspective, this is far from the routine level of waste and abuse at the Department of Defense­ and not remotely comparable to the Enron scandal.

In talking with colleagues at other Department of Energy laboratories, it became clear that when it comes to security or accountability, Los Alamos appears to be neither significantly worse nor significantly better than any other place in the DOE complex.

In terms of security, the shutdown was not necessary. So, how about the question of safety? In a letter to all hands a month or two before the shutdown, the former admiral praised the staff for great strides in improving safety and security practices­ made, of course, under his leadership.

But when the two incidents occurred, he turned right around and vilified the staff, angrily using pejorative terms like "arrogant," "buttheads" and "cowboys."

In order to see whether his criticism was valid, a couple of my colleagues and I, with little else to do in the early days of the shutdown, decided to look up data in the public domain on rates of accidents for Los Alamos, other DOE labs and comparable industries.

Does the data show that Los Alamos is "hundreds of times worse than any other place in the DOE complex," as one high DOE official claims? Not at all.

Though seven years ago the lab's safety record was worse than the chemical industry nationwide, a successful safety awareness program was implemented and the accident rate dropped significantly.

In fact, Los Alamos began to lead the DOE complex in safety about four years ago, and the rate since then has been comparable to the industry leader, DuPont Chemical. It has been about half the rate of the chemical industry nationwide and four times better than the manufacturing industry.

In terms of safety, the shutdown was not necessary, but did it really hurt anything?

Almost everyone agrees that Los Alamos' highest value contribution to the country is world-class scientific research.

Shutting all operations down for three months­ most experimental facilities have by now been closed for almost six months­ has meant that fully one-quarter of the lab's annual budget has been diverted from the science that taxpayers had come to expect from Los Alamos.

The question must then be turned around: Was the training of some 800 managers (7 percent of the work force) in the vulnerabilities of the work they are supposed to supervise and the reams of self-assessment paperwork they churned out worth the lost science?

Lab management argues that in shutting down the lab, Nanos showed that he really cares about the individuals who are injured (or are nearly killed) and their families, rather than only "the statistics."

The implication is that we scientists care only about statistics. But I would argue that we care far more about the human costs­ arguably more than management­ because we are the troops in the trenches.

The shutdown itself has had human costs, too. There has been a serious erosion in trust, a deep loss of morale and an upheaval in careers that have taken years to build. Now, there is the threat that good graduate students may not want to risk their future at a place as politically unstable as Los Alamos.

All we were saying in reporting the safety statistics is that there was no objective, publicly available evidence to justify the catastrophic measure of shutting down the whole laboratory.

Lately, management apologists have begun turning the statistics game on its head, claiming that Los Alamos is much more dangerous than the previous publicly available data suggest. Moreover, they say the data we reported on earlier are somehow flawed.

So, which is it? Were the statistics about LANL's safety that appeared in the public domain simply window-dressing? Is there secret data available only to management, showing, say, that the plutonium pit-manufacturing facility is horribly unsafe by nuclear industry standards?

LANL management really can't have it both ways, now, can it?

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