National Public Radio
All Things Considered
July 16, 2004

Los Alamos National Laboratory is missing sensitive material

ROBERT SIEGEL, host: From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host: And I'm Melissa Block.

A US nuclear weapons facility, Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, has ordered some 4 to 5,000 scientists and technicians to stop work. The move follows the discovery last week that two data storage devices containing classified information had gone missing. The lab is conducting an emergency inventory. Sources tell NPR that the missing devices came from a division of the lab that does sensitive work with high explosives. NPR's David Kestenbaum reports.


The division is called DX for Dynamic Experimentation. It studies the high explosives that are used to compress uranium in nuclear bombs. Scientists in the division detonate mockups of nuclear weapons where the actual nuclear material has been removed, and they perform what are known as subcritical tests, where a material such as plutonium gets compressed but not enough to explode. A lab official would not say what was on the missing devices, but Los Alamos has halted all classified work for the moment. Steven Aftergood studies security for the Federation of American Scientists.

Mr. STEVEN AFTERGOOD (Federal of American Scientists): It sure looks pretty serious. The lab is treating this as if it were extremely sensitive information that had been misplaced. And they are behaving with noticeably more vigor than they have in a previous instance in the past.

KESTENBAUM: One source affiliated with the lab says the devices do not appear to contain the design of actual nuclear weapons. Sources at the lab say there is no indication the devices have been stolen. But those sources say that lab director, Pete Nanos, lost his temper at a staff meeting this week. They say he cursed, said people would be fired and that if the, quote, "butt-head," end quote, sitting next to you is breaking the rules, you need to turn him in. He also warned of a, quote, "cowboy," end quote, attitude. Neither Nanos nor anyone at the Department of Energy was available for comment.

The lab will only say that the missing data were stored on some form of removeable electronic storage devices. That could mean a CD or a small hard drive. People at the lab say part of the problem is simply that things like that get lost. Steven Aftergood agrees.

Mr. AFTERGOOD: In intelligence agencies such as the CIA, they figured out years ago that it's a bad idea to have floppy disk drives or other forms of removeable media in a classified network. It simply makes it too easy to improperly remove classified information, and it's an invitation to abuse.

KESTENBAUM: He says the CIA has largely eliminated such devices. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham this year called for similar action at the weapons labs, and the labs have been slowly switching over for years. But Los Alamos still has tens of thousands of pieces of classified removable electronic media. They're kept track of with bar codes. Employees often have to sign them out. In some facilities, if an employee working alone gets up to go to the bathroom, the storage device has to first be locked in an office safe. Still, Sandia National Laboratory last night reported that it also lost a floppy disk marked 'classified.' Since December Los Alamos has now had a total of three such incidents.

The incidents come at a difficult time for the lab. Last April the Department of Energy, citing problems at the lab, decided to open up the contract for the first time to competition. The University of California currently runs the lab. Ward Connerly sits on its board of regents. He says this is a serious incident, but he doesn't think replacing the university will fix things at the lab.

Mr. WARD CONNERLY (Board of Regents): It's a very, very complex institution, and you've got some of the best scientists in the world and some of the best security people in the world at Los Al and they can't figure out what's going on. So it is something that the nation is going to have to understand, be a little bit patient with, be rigorous and demanding that we get it solved, but understand that it can happen to anybody; it can happen to any institution that is administering this lab.

KESTENBAUM: Many scientists at the lab say their greatest worry is that a big defense contractor will take over. They feel that the academic atmosphere at the lab now provides an important balance to the military view. David Kestenbaum, NPR News, Washington.

Copyright 2004 National Public Radio