Wednesday, February 09, 2005

LANL Boss, Security Under Attack

Albuquerque Journal North
Wednesday, February 9, 2005

LANL Boss, Security Under Attack

By Adam Rankin
Journal Staff Writer

A Los Alamos National Laboratory contractor and a former high-ranking LANL scientist have independently come forward with a range of concerns relating to last summer's work shutdown and nuclear safety at one of the weapons lab's highest-risk facilities.
Thomas J. Meyer­ the former associate director for LANL's strategic research and a former member of the senior executive team that reports to director Pete Nanos­ is critical of the way Nanos halted the work of 12,000 lab employees July 12 over safety and security weaknesses and wants to air his views so other employees and the community can gain some perspective on what has transpired since then.
Echoing the sentiments of some anonymous employee e-mail and Internet messages, Meyer said he feels Nanos transferred blame for procedural failures away from himself and senior managers while creating "an environment of fear and intimidation," and that Nanos went too far by publicly referring to LANL scientists as "cowboys" for not following safety and security procedures.
"They (scientists) have been inappropriately pilloried and impugned publicly by their own director," Meyer wrote in a seven-page missive distributed to local media Tuesday evening.
LANL spokesman James Fallin said he couldn't comment directly on Meyer's letter because he had not read it and could not comment on his resignation because that was a personnel action. But he did take issue with Meyer's depiction that Nanos is attacking scientists.
"What (Nanos) is attacking is complacency and the attitude that things are well enough if left alone and the idea that accountability isn't something used at this institution," he said.
In using the term "cowboy," Nanos was referring to just a few scientists who didn't follow the rules and did not apply the term to all LANL scientists, Fallin said.
Fallin also said that as employees learn the circumstances and factors involved in Nanos' decisions, most scientists and employees understand their propriety.
As a result of a laser accident and a 2003 clerical error that made it appear as though two classified computer disks were missing, four LANL employees were fired and a fifth, Meyer, resigned.
After reviewing the shutdown and the circumstances leading up to it, DOE investigators reported in a Jan. 21 memo to former Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham that "we have been consistently impressed by the attitude and actions of the Los Alamos Director."
In his letter, Meyer writes that many of the problems leading to the shutdown had previously been identified, but not fixed, and that the shutdown itself was excessive. Similar corrective measures could have been achieved through a rolling shutdown, avoiding the chaos and cost of a complete work stoppage while more effectively targeting problem areas, he said.
A chemist and member of the National Academy of Sciences, Meyer resigned his position at LANL, effective Oct. 12, in lieu of termination following a summer laser accident that seriously injured the eye of a student intern.
Meyer said he was tied to the accident because he oversaw the scientist responsible but that his was just an "inferential connection" without a direct link and that he couldn't have been fired for it.
He argued that the problems that provoked Nanos to take the unprecedented move of shutting down the laboratory lie in the support and management structures "that have not kept pace as the laboratory has grown."
Meyer also holds accountable DOE and the University of California, which manages LANL.
At the same time Meyer has come forward, Don Brown, a LANL contractor responsible for evaluating quality control over DOE nuclear facilities, is publicly disclosing his concerns.
On Tuesday night's "CBS Evening News," he recounted problems he said he uncovered at LANL's Technical Area-18, where the lab performs subcritical nuclear experiments.
Hired in 2003, Brown told CBS he "started finding problems that would stop any other nuclear facility in their tracks," including more than 1,000 faulty welds, which he suggested made the facility susceptible to a nuclear accident.
Brown said TA-18 is also susceptible to a nuclear accident, such as the one that occurred in Chernobyl, because it does not have a "containment structure."
He also said security was lax enough that a scientist was able to walk away with radioactive material that was not discovered missing until a burglar broke into his home and police investigated.
LANL spokesman Kevin Roark strongly contested each of those points. He said LANL officials have known about the welding issues, which were solved years ago. LANL's Fallin said the welds pose no risks to workers or the public and that "there is a very aggressive program in place to rectify the very issues" Brown raised.
Roark said TA-18 is not required to have a containment structure because there is no nuclear reactor to contain and that the radioactive material found in the scientist's home is a type that can be bought commercially and is used for calibrating safety equipment.
"To assert that someone walked away with materials is completely disingenuous," he said.

The same, tired old comments from the official lab spokespersons. One kind of has to wonder how Roark, Fallin, and DeLucas can get up each morning and face themselves in the mirror.

At some point it will become, finally, undeniably obvious to everybody (with the probable exception of Nanos) that it simply cannot be the case that Nanos is right and everybody else is wrong regarding the poor quality of his leadership at LANL.
Tom Meyer truly was one of the good guys. When he has something to say, it generally pays to listen to it.
For anyone trying to decide whether to trust Meyer's comments or Fallin's comments, rely on your own common sense. Which is more likely, that 4000 of the nation's top physicists, chemists, and engineers are conspiring to reject all responsibility and accountability, or that we have one hot-head running the place who created an artificial crisis to cover for his own ineptitude as a manager?

Typically, when a man says that everyone else in the world is crazy and he alone is sane, it just isn't so.
4000? No. 400? Yes. I believe that totally. I've seen what these people are like first hand, and seen their attitude towards security.

Not all of these people are bad, but there are bad people. Make no mistake about it.
There are huge problems at the lab. It's beginning to sound like the "inmates are trying to run the asylum". There is tremendous fraud, waste and abuse at this lab all in the name of science. This is primarily the result of a campus like attitude towards the way the lab has been run in the past.

I have no doubt that great science is performed at the lab. I contend that the support and management of that science as well as the overall security AND safety could be greatly improved. Pete Nanos is a step in the right direction. As a taxpayer, I'd rather see the whole damn thing shut down if the management does not continue to show improvement!
You don't work here, do you?
Numerous complains about "rampant waste, fraud, and abuse" at LANL have been investigated and each one proven false. How many times does a person have to cry wolf for people to stop jumping?

If you have a claim to make, show data, otherwise, head back to Roswell with the rest of the UFO-logists.
" There are huge problems at the lab...."

This writing style and substance sounds oddly like Chris Mechels.

It may not be him, but sure sounds like him.
I hear the noise-to-signal ratio climbing here.

I was very pleased to see this forum but I hate to see us
chew eachother up while the problems continue.

I'm a 25 year staff member at LANL and I knew
Chris Mechels personally before and after he
left the lab. He had some legitimate beefs AND
he was prone to hystrionics. If he's posting here,
more power to him, most of us know how to
ignore his wild overstatements and listen for the
gems of truth that we know are substantiated.

When Nanos came "on board" lots of people gave
him the benefit of the doubt and applauded his
"tight ship" approach. He seemed like someone
who could help turn some of our problems around.
I was reluctantly hopeful.

I've been on the wrong end of too many "cowboy"
and "butthead" actions by my peers to say that Nanos
was completely wrong in those statements. Unfortunately
most of those "cowboys" and "buttheads" got promoted
through the years and are now peppering the middle
and upper management positions.

Nanos himself was *hired in* by one of these types and
he *had to know* how egregious this person's behavior
was, yet when he was promoted to LANL director, he kept
this unnamed person on in the very same position despite
clear bad behaviour and numerous complaints filed
against him.

I don't know that Nanos was hired to, or directed to
destroy staff morale, but his actions this year have
generally been very effective at that.

Yes, we have huge problems, but I don't believe Nanos did
anything to improve them by shutting us down, by overreacting,
by "dressing everyone down" in public, by never admitting he had
overreacted or made a mistake or acted out his own role in
what he himself calls "a culture of arrogance".

I continue to try to do my job the very best I can, I try to
take (yet more) seriously all aspects of safety and security,
not because I believe we were not attending properly to them
before but because I understand that we are under a microscope
and because "appearances" are currently more important
than reality.

I believe that UC was complicit in many of our problems but
so was DOE and every one of us. I want UC to keep this contract
and I *don't* want a "Halliburton" to take it. Part of this is
selfish. I like the deal I have as a UC employee and expect to like
what is offered by someone else a lot less. But also I think UC
can and does offer as good of management as we are going to

Let's help UC keep this contract and help them fix our
problems, starting by cleaning house *from the top down* instead
"bottom up" as Vice-admiral Pete thought he needed to do.

Pete can go first and at least one, probably more AD's. I'd call that
a "good start".
"Fallin also said that as employees learn the circumstances and factors involved in Nanos' decisions, most scientists and employees understand their propriety."

Huh? Does Public Affairs have the slightest clue what scientists and technicians in the trenches really think? If this is the best public communication we can get, maybe we should try doing without it altogether.
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