Some Los Alamos National Laboratory scientists say the decision to shut the lab down was an overreaction and has cost millions

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Anchors: Robert Siegel, Michele Norris
Reporters: David Kestenbaum
All Things Considered, National Public Radio (NPR)
September 20, 2004, Monday

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

Los Alamos National Laboratory, sometimes known as the birthplace of the atomic bomb, is in turmoil. In late July, the lab's director cited security and safety concerns in halting the work of the lab's 15,000-plus employees. Today, nearly two months later, a quarter of those workers still have yet to resume their usual activities. Some scientists at the lab say the decision to shut it down was a huge overreaction that's costing taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars. NPR's David Kestenbaum reports.

DAVID KESTENBAUM reporting:

The decision to stop work at the lab came after two incidents. First, researchers in one division could not account for two classified computer disks. Then in another building, a student injured her eye with a laser. The missing disks generated a flurry of media coverage and outrage from Capitol Hill, which some scientists suspect prompted the shutdown. The issue quickly evaporated, though. The lab eventually told members of Congress that the missing disks apparently never actually existed. The lab officially says the shutdown isn't wasting any money because employees are reviewing important security and safety information. Kevin Roark is a lab spokesman.

Mr. KEVIN ROARK (Spokesman, Los Alamos National Laboratory): No one's been idle. The lab has been open. Everyone's been coming to work. Everyone's been working very, very hard through this resumption of activities process, so no one's been idle.

KESTENBAUM: Some scientists say that isn't true. One lab manager told NPR his workers were essentially twiddling their thumbs. Most of these employees were unwilling to speak publicly, but Brad Holian agreed to talk. He's a physicist and says the people he works with didn't really need safety training since they mostly work with pencils and paper or a computer.

Mr. BRAD HOLIAN (Physicist, Los Alamos National Laboratory): I'm in a theoretical group, so our major problem, I guess, in safety would be getting up on a chair to change a lightbulb when you shouldn't be doing that kind of thing, you know.

KESTENBAUM: The lab costs over $4 million a day to run. Holian says he believes the work stoppage has so far flushed $200 million down the drain in lost time.

Lab spokesman Kevin Roark says the lab's director, Pete Nanos, is too busy to talk to the press, but he says Nanos stands by his decision to halt work. He says there was a troubling series of near misses and safety incidents over the past two years.

Mr. ROARK: I mean, we had a pattern emerging where a bulldozer operator almost bulldozed an active high-voltage line. We had a near electrocution. And that's what prompted Director Nanos to take the action that he did.

KESTENBAUM: Nanos, in a staff meeting, referred to a, quote, "cowboy attitude" among scientists, and referred to some as `buttheads.' But Brad Holian, the physicist, says the notion that there is a cultural problem at the lab just isn't borne out. In his spare time--which he said he had a lot of--he compared the safety records of Los Alamos with other national labs.

Mr. HOLIAN: If Los Alamos really was a bunch of arrogant, butthead cowboys, they would appear to have a safety record and incidents safety violations twice as high as anyplace else or, you know, way out of the statistical clouds, and that wasn't the case.

KESTENBAUM: If anything, he says, Los Alamos has a better safety record than the other labs. Holian wrote his findings up and sent them around. He says he's gotten about a hundred supportive e-mails, some from former senior managers saying, `Bravo.' Kevin Roark, the lab's spokesman, says the director did not mean to imply that there was a culture of sloppiness.

Mr. ROARK: He said from the very beginning, he believed the culture problem involved a very, very small number of people.

KESTENBAUM: So he acknowledges that it's just a few people, but he still thinks it was the right thing to do, shut down the entire lab?

Mr. ROARK: Right. You got to get the whole lab's attention.

KESTENBAUM: One scientist at Los Alamos says he gives the director points for being tough. Last week, four employees were fired in connection with the recent incidents. But Brad Holian, the physicist, says the ultimate result is the worst morale he has seen in 32 years there, and that's why he's speaking out.

Mr. HOLIAN: Because I really care about this laboratory. My entire scientific career has been done here at Los Alamos, and it's not something I would just feel comfortable walking away from and saying, `Oh, well, you know. That was 32 years,' you know. That's a little bit too much of an emotional investment on my life.

Mr. ROARK: The lab says it expects to have all workers back to normal activities by mid-October.

David Kestenbaum, NPR News, Washington.