Los Alamos and the Threat to Security

From National Defense to Security Threat:

an interview with Greg Mello on Los Alamos

by John Pruett

March 2004

Entering the small town of Los Alamos, travelers are immediately struck by the irregularities of a world shrouded by a veil of normalcy. What first appears an insular community hidden among the Jemez Mountains of northern New Mexico soon reveals itself to be a conglomeration of major financial banks, military contractors, security checkpoints and a nuclear laboratory larger than the town. Almost all of roughly 12,000 residents have some affiliation with the lab, either as scientists, researchers, security personnel, managers or family members of employees.

Despite the labs premier position in defending the US against nuclear attack, acquiring the Los Alamos National Laboratory could prove to be a bad move for the University of Texas System if current trends of mismanagement and security risks continue. Not only would UT risk becoming involved in an out-of-state lawsuit, but could become plagued by bad publicity.

Less than 100 miles away from Los Alamos, in Albuquerque, Sandia National Laboratory produces non-nuclear components of nuclear weapons under Lockheed Martin. The UT System sought last year to obtain the lab, but Sandia was never put up for bid.

Unable to acquire Sandia, the UT System has launched an effort to manage the Los Alamos lab. The federal government plans to open it to competition in 2005, and UT wants in. At a February 3 meeting in Brownsville, the System's Board of Regents allotted $500,000 to research the possibility of winning the lab. Dan Burck, Chancellor Yudof's advisor and head of UT's Los Alamos Task Force, is overseeing this effort.

Greg Mello

One of the staunchest critics of Los Alamos also resides in Albuquerque. Greg Mello formed the Los Alamos Study Group in 1992 to redirect the lab's post-Cold War research away from nuclear weapons. In his 20 years of research into the lab's operations, he has fought for lab workers' rights, safer waste disposal practices and closure of Area G (Los Alamos' waste dump), more effective lab security, and ending weapons production. 

Although Los Alamos works on projects including the development of next-generation supercomputers and the design of a nuclear reactor for future space missions to Jupiter, almost 80 percent of the lab's research still falls into the category of nuclear weapons.

Mello joined the New Mexico state Environmental Improvement Division as the first senior hazardous waste inspector at Los Alamos after receiving his bachelor's in systems engineering and a master's from Harvard in regional planning and environmental sciences. After six months, Mello received a promotion to technical advisor for the new senior inspector.

Starting in 1987, Mello worked for the New Mexico Environmental Department. While at the department and later as a consultant, Mello researched the effects of groundwater contamination at hazardous waste sites in New Mexico and California.

One of these sites, Area G, contains the majority of Los Alamos' hazardous waste. The US Department of Energy and the lab contend the New Mexico Environmental Department has no power over the site and, thus, have never sought certification from the state for waste disposal at Area G.

The University of California, Los Alamos and the DoE filed a lawsuit in 2002 against New Mexico's Environmental Department, effectively halting a corrective action order issued by the state. The order determined that Area G was a significant and imminent threat to the environment and public health and also provided a cleanup plan. The parties involved in the suit have not yet reached a settlement.

Meanwhile, the DoE has withheld $42 million in extra cleanup funds designated for Los Alamos – a move New Mexico's governor, Bill Richardson, labeled "extortion" in a January article of the Albuquerque Journal. So far the state of New Mexico has refused the terms outlined by the DoE.

If the lawsuit remains unresolved after the 2005 bid for Los Alamos, it could spell trouble for the new lab managers. They would have to choose whether to replace the University of California in the suit or stay out of it altogether. According to Mello, if the University of Texas wins the bid, then "UT will have to decide whether or not to sue the state of New Mexico."

As Greg Mello and others will testify, the lawsuit occupies merely a blip in a lengthy chain of questionable events at Los Alamos stretching back to its inception 60 years ago. In 1999, a lab employee, Wen Ho Lee, allegedly provided China with secret weapons documents. The Clinton administration ultimately dropped its investigation, but the Wen Ho Lee case publicized the lab's capacity for serious problems. Since that time, numerous accounts of lab mishaps and security concerns have surfaced in the media. Tragically, they have not received the same level of attention.

These incidents tend to follow a common pattern. An employee of the lab, a watchdog group or the media publicizes a negative story about Los Alamos. Then the lab, the DoE or the National Nuclear Security Administration calls for an investigation of the incident. The University of California, as manager of the lab, accepts responsibility for any misdeeds and, in response to the investigative findings, the lab finally proposes and implements bureaucratic, personnel or procedural changes. Public relations officials pace themselves as fresh scandals surface, and the lab, fraying like an old pair of jeans, receives patchwork again and again. Eventually the whole thing begins to look ugly and its time to consider a new pair of pants.

The University of California's responsibility lies not in its mismanagement of the lab, but instead in its lack of management. If UT were to acquire the lab, Mello predicts the situation would likely remain the same.  Management is limited because the lab assumes a life of its own.

The difficulty in supervising Los Alamos with an outside manager, such as UT or UC, results from an inability to know everything that happens at the lab.  For instance, UC personnel assigned to manage the lab number roughly 400, whereas the total number of lab employees hovers around 9,000. Also, UC management teams tend to be inexperienced due to frequent bureaucratic changes.

Circumstances would not likely change even if the UC were to increase the number of management teams. These teams would not have complete access to all security areas nor would they be provided with clearance. Many of these special access programs answer only to high-level DoE officials.

Likewise, the university cannot use program funding as a tool of effective leadership. The US legislature eagerly funds whatever programs the DoE, the labs or senators demand, for fear that the nation's nuclear arsenal will not work properly when needed. As a result, Los Alamos sets it's own agenda independent from the UC and, to some degree, the federal government.

Groups such as the Project on Government Oversight, a government watchdog group based in Washington, DC, have uncovered memos to lab employees urging not to tell public officials more than is absolutely necessary when confronted about problems. This translates into a mafia-style 'don't be a rat' mentality that extends even to offices of the DoE.

In fact, Mello says one of the primary agents of mismanagement has been the DoE itself.

"The missions of the lab are poorly defined and are designed to soak up money, often without any relation to external realities, as demonstrated by the DoE's inability to complete major projects," he said. 

A report released in October of 2001 by the Project on Government Oversight corroborates his story. It reads: the "DoE's disregard for proven threats to nuclear security and its institutional bull-headedness has thwarted the efforts of reformers, time and time again."

Reports by the US General Accounting Office, along with those of various other DoE, congressional and watchdog groups, reveal a long-standing trend of scandal and disregard for the public that far surpasses any specific Los Alamos administrator or DoE official. The problems extend beyond Los Alamos to all DoE labs – one particularly egregious example was the FBI raid on the Rocky Flats nuclear plant in 1989 for illegal hazardous waste dumping estimated at almost billion in cleanup costs in 1995. The plant was subsequently closed and Los Alamos was threatened with closure as well, but similar activities continue at facilities across the country.

In the past three years, several major cases of mismanagement, frivolous spending and security risks at Los Alamos have surfaced in the media. This list includes the 2002 finding that employees spent lab funds on a Ford Mustangs, home electronics, gas grills, camping equipment and other personal items. Later that year, the Project on Government Oversight obtained a lab document showing lab officials had falsified information to the DoE, "particularly in regard to requirements instituted due to previous mismanagement at the facility."

In January 2003, the Chicago Tribune announced the resignation of former lab director John Browne and his deputy after discovering that .9 million in equipment was missing, including 263 computers possibly containing classified information. In June of 2003 Los Alamos Director Peter Nanos admitted to losing two vials of plutonium, enough to kill thousands of people if released into the air.

The Los Angeles Times reported the lab's loss of ten classified computer disks in December of 2003. Lab officials were not sure what information all of the disks contained. The National Nuclear Security Administration said it was "disturbed that, after all of the revelations and reviews about security and document control over the past few years, laboratory employees still have not learned to manage their classified media properly."

Warning Signs

Terrorist acts posed directly against Los Alamos are arguably the greatest security threat. In a 2001 report, the Project on Government Oversight described attack simulations conducted at Los Alamos in October 2000 by the military. Mock terrorists were able to infiltrate the lab and steal enough nuclear material to wreak havoc on several surrounding states, killing all security personnel and constructing a nuclear device in a matter of minutes.

In another simulation, an Army Special Forces team succeeded in stealing enough nuclear material for multiple weapons by loading it into a Home Depot garden cart. The report mentioned that the DoE considered this attack "unfair."

Vanity Fair published an article in November 2003 supporting the Project on Government Oversight's findings. Rich Levernier, one of the article's main sources, worked on one of the teams trained to test the security systems at Los Alamos.

"In more than 50 percent of our tests of the Los Alamos facility, we got in, captured the plutonium, got out again, and in some cases didn't fire a shot, because we didn't encounter any guards," he told Vanity Fair.

After failing to gain the attention of his DoE superiors with his findings, many of whom denied the existence of such problems, Levernier went public. He lost his security clearance and was fired.

Not much has changed for the DoE and Los Alamos since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Suicide attacks will not appear in the lab's attack simulations until 2009. Furthermore, The Vanity Fair article states that the Bush Administration has not only allowed existing flaws in nuclear security to go untouched but has also tried to silence those, such as Levernier, who attempt to vocalize these security problems.

Mello says if attacks such as those experienced in the terrorist simulations were to occur under UT System management, any prestige Los Alamos could bring to UT would quickly evaporate.

"UT will be in a world of pain," he said. "If UT takes over Los Alamos, UT will be the largest developer of weapons of mass destruction in the world and will be in violation of US treaty obligations [under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty]. It is important for the UT community to consider deeply what this means for education at UT."