John Browne, the director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, the birthplace of the first atomic bomb, resigned his post on Dec. 23. He was followed by Deputy Director Joseph Salgado. Los Alamos laboratory official George Nanos, a former Navy admiral, will serve as the lab’s interim director until a replacement is found.
Los Alamos is one of the nation’s three nuclear laboratories run by the Dept. of Energy and managed by the University of California. The resignations, which follow a number of scandals at the laboratory, may be a harbinger of things to come.
“Taken together, these problems have called into question the University of California’s ability to run the Los Alamos National Laboratory,” DOE Secretary Spencer Abraham said in a letter to UC President Richard Atkinson, adding that he is concerned about a “systematic management failure” at the lab.
Dept. of Energy officials will begin a review of the UC’s management practices. Their report, due April 30, may determine whether the University of California will continue to manage the labs after the term of their current contract, which ends in 2006. The annual budget of Los Alamos alone totals $1.796 billion.
Recent scandals at Los Alamos began in 1999 with the Wen Ho Lee affair. Lee, a laboratory employee, was held for 275 days on 59 felony counts after being accused of transferring nuclear secrets to an unsecured computer at Los Alamos. The severity of the charges proved unfounded and Lee was released after pleading guilty to one count and being sentenced to time already served.
More recently, two laboratory investigators, Glenn Walp and Steve Doran, were fired from the laboratory after submitting a report that accused laboratory officials of ignoring a host of unauthorized purchases by laboratory employees totaling several million dollars. According to the report, these purchases included golf balls, underwear, all-terrain vehicles, a Ford Mustang and a two-ton magnet. Lab employees also allegedly lost or purchased the following items on company credit cards: a water tower, a home air conditioning unit, several vehicles, flat-screen televisions, spy equipment, dish washers, digital cameras, over 200 computers and a forklift.
“For 60 years, the scientists and engineers of Los Alamos have played a vital role in ensuring the security of the United States,” Abraham said. “It is crucial that we restore public confidence n the management of the laboratory so that they can continue to play that role.”