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Political Football
Partisan politics could determine management of Los Alamos laboratory

By Carl Irving
Los Alamos, New Mexico

Scientists at this national laboratory, many of them helping to maintain and protect the world's largest nuclear stockpile, tensely await word whether a university in Texas or California will manage them a year from now.

They expect to find out as soon as the outcome of the November 2 presidential election is known, even though the present contract with the University of California, first and only manager for 60 years, runs through next September.

Interviews in the swarm of offices and research labs at this isolated site, 34 miles northwest of Santa Fe and 7,400 feet above sea level, found virtual unanimity that the name of the next president will determine whether or not Texas campuses replace UC as manager. That judgment was confirmed by scientists and officials not connected with the lab, though their comments were mostly not for attribution.

A Bush victory, according to this consensus, means the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) will opt for the University of Texas and/or Texas A&M University as co-managers, with a private enterprise. And a Kerry win, it is expected, means that UC will be retained as lab manager, also in partnership with a for-profit business.

 
The most important mission at Los Alamos is maintenance of an enduring nuclear stockpile, says lab official Donald J. Rej.
(Photo by Los Alamos National Laboratory)
 
"It's scary to think decisions about national security will be affected by national politics," said George Blumenthal, chairman of the UC faculty academic senate. "The reality is everyone seems to think that it will."

This outlook gained adherents after recent widely publicized allegations of security problems at the lab. Virtually all operations were shut down indefinitely on July 16, and 23 employees ultimately were suspended. DOE Secretary Spencer Abraham said employees had engaged in "widespread disregard of security procedures." Representative Joe Barton, Republican from Texas and chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, promptly traveled to Los Alamos, praised the DOE for moving "aggressively," and called for an FBI investigation.

The new lab director, retired Vice Admiral George "Pete" Nanos, joined in the chorus of condemnation. In closed sessions, he used words such as "butt-heads" and "cowboys" in accusing workers of carelessness, according to scientists who were there. However, a lab spokesman said recently that the facilities are likely to be almost entirely back in operation before November.

Following the shutdown, Abraham's agency formally added the two Texas university systems to its list of potential prime contractors. Texas' senior senator, Kay Bailey Hutchinson, joined by several Texas congressmen, "actively encouraged UT and A&M to bid," said a well-informed source. "The openness for change is palpable at the DOE." Long-awaited details from DOE on how to go about the formal bidding process now are expected some weeks after the election.

Los Alamos is one of three national laboratories managed for the federal government by the University of California. UC is expected to retain management contracts for the other two-in Berkeley and in Livermore, 50 miles southeast of San Francisco. But stewardship of Los Alamos, where the first atomic bombs were developed 60 years ago, is uncertain.

 
University of California President Robert C. Dynes favors renewal of the Los Alamos contract.
(Photo by David Toerge, Black Star, for CrossTalk)
 
At issue is a lab with an annual budget in excess of $2 billion, more than 10,000 workers, and an annual payroll that exceeds a billion dollars. Scientists here and elsewhere generally agree the lab plays a crucial role in American and world security, because of its collective expertise in research and working aspects of nuclear weaponry, here and abroad. UC is paid between $14 million and $15 million a year to manage the lab but says it makes no profit from the arrangement.

About a third of the Los Alamos technical staff are physicists, another one fourth are engineers, and the rest include chemists, materials scientists, mathematicians, and computational, biological and geo-scientists. Many universities other than UC are involved in projects-including the two in Texas-but UC research predominates, according to Donald J. Rej, acting program director for science and technology. Staff scientists reflected varying degrees of uncertainty, fear and frustration over recent developments, as criticisms about lab operations flowed in.

Criticism came from many directions. UC's S. Robert Foley, vice president for laboratory management (and, like Nanos, a former Navy admiral) told the regents in July that "there has been a lack of accountability, virtually a sense of entitlement that developed over the years in the culture at the laboratory."

Inspections subsequently found that the first items to be publicized as missing-two security disks-might not be missing after all. But the shutdown continued amid reports of other missing items, including 19 storage devices and classified e-mails, contents unknown, which had been sent out on the public internet. In August, five employees were suspended after an avoidable misuse of a laser beam had affected the eyes of a student intern.

By September, four employees were fired and a fifth had resigned. Seven others got reprimands, demotions and salary cuts. Meanwhile, a DOE sub-unit, the National Nuclear Security Agency, announced it would move all weapons-grade nuclear material from the part of the Los Alamos lab that has been the subject of security concerns to a Nevada test site.

Last summer's publicity revived years of controversy over security that began with the 1999 arrest of staff engineer Wen Ho Lee, who was charged with spying for China. After nine months in solitary confinement, Lee pleaded guilty to a single charge of mishandling nuclear secrets. Over the next three years, suspicions about security at Los Alamos began to fade, but last summer produced the newest and most controversial moments.

These events led Nature, the internationally prominent science journal, to observe that "the plagues afflicting Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico are beginning to reach Biblical proportions."

It would explain, said the August 12 editorial, why the two universities in "the politically well-connected state of Texas... have expressed an interest, and why Representative Barton visited the lab and called for an FBI investigation." The lockdown, it said, has had "a profoundly negative impact on laboratory morale, which was already beaten down by the prospect of staff losing their valued academic affiliations with the University of California...It is intolerable that a national resource as important as Los Alamos should be allowed to languish for years as a political football, losing people and prestige with every bounce."

During interviews, several scientists here cited the Nature editorial as reflecting their views.

"I don't want to say the sky is falling, but I believe that's true," said Michelle A. Espy, 34, a staff biophysicist, who has worked here for 13 years. Her lab, like others, was shut down indefinitely in July. She and her colleagues had been in a race of international interest against researchers at Berkeley to develop improved brain-imaging technologies. Present MRI scans can only look at brain anatomy; the new technique might simultaneously find how the brain is functioning.

"The research was so exciting, we were really on fire," Espy said. "Only two places in the world were going down this path." Now she fears the National Institutes of Health will cancel its three-year grant to complete the research, leaving the field to Berkeley. "I really love this place, and most scientists would agree what a great place it is. But we fear what will happen to us," said Espy, who grew up in southern California and got her Ph.D. at the University of Minnesota. "Most of us my age are getting their resumes ready."

 
The Los Alamos National Laboratory covers 40 square miles on top of several mesas, northwest of Santa Fe.
(Photo by Los Alamos National Laboratory)
 
The litany of widely publicized problems here has left the University of California officially undecided about competing for contract renewal. That stand might have been reinforced after the Los Angeles Times, California's most widely read newspaper, editorialized on August 2 that the UC decision "should be a no-brainer. By bowing out, UC would save itself the millions needed to make a bid and perhaps lessen national security threats."

Two days later, during a Los Alamos visit, UC President Robert C. Dynes said his system had not yet decided whether to invest in a bid to renew the contract. But seven weeks later, Dynes told a UC Board of Regents meeting that "I'd rather have some influence on the decisions than be a bystander." He was "fully committed to restore confidence that the nation has somewhat lost in Los Alamos."

California's senior U.S. senator, Dianne Feinstein, remained steadfastly silent on the issue. "We've been told that if we don't bid with an industrial partner, we might as well not apply," said a top-ranking UC official. Foley, Dynes' lab deputy, said talks had been "far down the road" with aerospace firm Lockheed Martin about a partnership, until the latter had "backed away."

The sole strongly worded argument for contract renewal came from Dynes' advisory council, a mix of university and industrial executives, headed by William L. Friend, a member of the governing board of the National Research Council, and former executive vice president and director of the Bechtel Group, Inc.

In an interview, Friend said the council was unanimous on this, because "UC is critical to national security, for world-class research at Los Alamos and Livermore." Los Alamos, he said, had "become almost a whipping post. It was hyped in the media. (Yet) statistics on safety there are quite good."

While UC hesitates, the two Texas universities have been active in seeking other research agreements this year with large national labs. Early last summer, Texas A&M submitted a formal bid to co-manage the newly organized Idaho National Laboratory, which specializes in engineering and energy research. The University of Texas had previously signed an agreement with another engineering center, the Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico, for "collaborative research and other activities," including faculty, staff and student exchanges. Sandia does federally sponsored research, which a spokesman said involves the military, homeland security, renewable energy, the environment and "U.S. economic competitiveness."

Los Alamos and Sandia together employ "some of the best scientists in the world and are among the state's main economic drivers," accounting for about 40 percent of all research in New Mexico, said Rick Homans, who heads Governor Bill Richardson's economic development unit.

Juan Sanchez, vice president for research at the UT Austin campus, confirmed that his system was "considering" a bid to manage Los Alamos. Earlier, UT system Chancellor Mark Yudof had announced that he was ready to explore collaboration with Texas A&M as co-manager at Los Alamos. "We consider the Los Alamos contract to be an exciting opportunity for the UT system, given the science and engineering strengths at the academic and health science institutions across the system," Yudof said in a news release.

"Texas A&M has strong ties to the national security history of the United States," said Lee Peddicord, vice chancellor for federal relations for the A&M system. Of the students at the main campus in College Station, 2,200 are enrolled in the undergraduate uniformed corps, and the university is the largest provider to the U.S. officer corps after the service academies. Texas A&M also has the "largest nuclear engineering department in the nation," Peddicord said. The campus historically has many close ties to Los Alamos in both research programs and graduate student training, he added. Peddicord confirmed that his campus has been "in touch" with UT about sharing the Los Alamos management, along with private industry.

In past years, New Mexico politicians have solidly supported the UC connection, largely because of the jobs it provided, but also to escape too tight an embrace from Texas. Officials in Santa Fe say that grudge has roots going back to a bloody conflict during the Civil War, and earlier differences over Hispanic heritage. They still quote a long-ago Governor Peralta, who supposedly observed, with regret, that his state was "so far from Mexico, so close to Texas."

New Mexico's two senators, both members of the Energy Committee, have consistently supported the UC management contract, but one of them, Republican Pete Domenici, the committee chairman, backed away a bit from this view after the security issues arose last summer. The other senator, Jeff Bingaman, a Democrat, said in an interview that while what happened at the lab was a cause for concern, he hoped UC would bid. The lab, he said, "benefited greatly from having UC as contractor," allowing it to "attract and retain top scientists and engineers."

Democratic Governor Richardson's public affairs office ignored requests for an interview, and would not respond to questions about his views on the Los Alamos contract. But two fellow Democrats and state legislators, House Speaker Ben Lujan and Senator Phil Griego, co-chairman of the legislature's Los Alamos oversight committee, said the governor had openly favored renewing the UC contract. "The governor made his support public in open session," Lujan said. "We hope that President Bush is not playing politics," he added, "but the elections could well play a role."

Last spring, before the latest furor over security issues at the lab, a UC faculty survey on whether to renew the contract found three to one in favor. But some question the poll's significance, because only 26 percent of the faculty bothered to vote. "It's no longer a hot-button issue," said one senior UC official. "The passion is gone."

At the September Board of Regents meeting, Berkeley nuclear engineering professor William E. Kastenberg strongly supported renewing the ties, citing evidence of extensive joint research: In the past 14 years, he said, UC faculty and students, jointly with lab scientists and engineers, have published 2,080 articles in scientific journals and conference papers. Last year, the lab had 131 ongoing research projects involving UC campuses. "Social and financial" issues should not affect deciding whether to renew the contract, Kastenberg said. Renewal should be "in the best interest of public service."

But UC Santa Barbara physicist Walter Kohn argued that classified war-related work was not consistent with the UC mission. All final decisions were made by the Department of Energy, not the university, said Kohn, a Nobel laureate. "It is wrong for our university to help design, develop, even manufacture, nuclear weapons," he said. "We're fundamentally incompatible."

Faculty chairman George Blumenthal, an astronomer who has been at the UC Santa Cruz campus for 32 years, said in an interview that he remained "studiously neutral" about the Los Alamos contract, but added that he is "kind of shocked" by what he has read about alleged misdeeds at the lab.

Changing expectations about Los Alamos might justify a new approach, said Charles V. Shank, director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab for the last 15 years. "What has happened is that (in the past) Los Alamos was a weapons design lab. In the last few years, it has actually been manufacturing and producing parts for bombs, such as plutonium tips-the core of the primary stage in a weapon. Its job had been to prevent scientific surprise; today, after 60 years, it has a new role-stockpile stewardship. If you read what's in the newspapers and what DOE says, you see where the priorities are. They have shifted. The world has changed from the university being an asset to a liability. We've seen that take place," said Shank, a professor in the physics, chemistry, electrical engineering and computer sciences departments at the adjoining Berkeley campus, who retired as lab director in September.

 
UC Santa Barbara physicist Walter Kohn thinks it is "wrong for our university to help design, develop, even manufacture, nuclear weapons."
(Photo by David Toerge, Black Star, for CrossTalk)
 
While Los Alamos and other national weapons labs remain very important to American security, Shank asked, "Does that play to the strengths of a university? Does UC fulfill its declared mission of public service by managing Los Alamos now that it's being transformed...to doing weapons production?...My view is that the university is not as central (to Los Alamos) as it once was, because of its transition from scientific innovation to stewardship and archival activities. The country's losing patience, because what matters now is rigor and discipline, not what a university's good at-science and capability. So the university has seen the world change; the university finds it difficult to change. It's not clear to me where we go."

In response, acting program director Rej, a veteran physicist, said the Los Alamos lab's mission-to maintain an enduring nuclear stockpile-needs constant work by a wide range of scientists on new kinds of instruments, not only to protect the stockpile but to prevent nuclear terrorism elsewhere in the world.

"It's an ominous task, where the lab director goes to the secretary of energy, who goes to the president of the United States and says 'it is safe,' or 'it is not safe,'" Rej said. "And there's also proliferation and non-proliferation, a legacy of 60 years of manufacturing, waste and environmental issues. We send people all over the world to deploy devices and portable monitors." Over the past 40 years, most of the inspectors that work for the International Atomic Energy Agency were trained at the Los Alamos, he said.

Scientists who worked here, past and present, echoed these sentiments, including Charles Keller, who worked under every director who followed the first one, Robert J. Oppenheimer. "UC is so much better than anybody else," said Keller, who did weapons research here before heading the Los Alamos branch of the UC Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics.

Current promising collaborative research includes defenses against what frequently has been cited as a serious potential threat: the smuggling of dangerous nuclear weapons into ports. Devices are being developed here that might be able to scrutinize cargo containers and detect such threats. The process, called proton radiography, examines cosmic rays scattered off the containers. Such discoveries come from "clever people outside defense" who help manage security, Rej said. "It's incredibly important, and not just in nuclear physics." He cited the discovery three years ago by chemists and others here of ways to detect hidden supplies of deadly anthrax.

Scientists had time to spare during the recent shutdown to display unclassified research that could some day save many lives. One example, described by Charles R. Farrar, who deals with engineering science and applications as well as weapon research, involves studies done jointly with faculty and students at UC San Diego that might promptly pinpoint damage after earthquakes affecting major bridges, such as San Diego's Coronado or San Francisco's Golden Gate.

Staffers such as biophysicist Espy extol the advantages of the lab's multidisciplinary research. "Los Alamos is one of the few places in the world where you've got multidisciplinary chemists across the street, and the best computer scientists, and best computer science resources in the other direction," she said. "Unlike at a university, people actually talk to each other. Here there is a real collaborative spirit."

Dean E. Peterson, who heads the lab's superconductivity technology center, recently directed a mix of scientists who made important discoveries, such as wires that can carry 100 times more power, and vastly more efficient fuel cells. "We're on the cutting edge of doing things probably no one has ever done in all the world," he said.

Like others interviewed, Peterson emphasized that UC ties make a difference:

"You couldn't have some small university that couldn't provide oversight or guidance with what's going on here, while giving us the respect we need. California has that in spades. We need to have that tie with professors and students to build on collaboration that we may not have with a lesser university system. [The University of Texas and Texas A&M] are perfectly good universities, but their repute in physics and fundamental science is tiny compared with that at UC."

While acknowledging that much of the research carries risks, Peterson said, "We have one of the best safety records compared with anyone, in terms of lost work days."

"Until recently, our public record has been as good as you can expect from any organization in the world," said Albert Migliori, a top-ranking laboratory fellow, who has been here for 34 years, working on both nuclear weapons and peaceful projects.

Like others here, Migliori is concerned about who becomes the next manager. "I think the prize of running the labs...has to do with control, and which senator and which congressman can make the biggest stink over how a university system is running the lab. The UC contract is critically important to maintaining the very strong scientific credentials we really need to support nuclear weapons and defense programs-by having really smart people around, broad-based scientific talent when you need it. To keep nuclear weapons functioning, you can't hire machinists."


Freelance writer Carl Irving lives in the San Francisco Bay area.

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National CrossTalk Fall 2004

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