In December 2004, shortly after Secretary Abraham announced his plans to resign, the Department of Energy released another report addressing the alarming problem of security at all national labs. “The department must ensure that its most sensitive materials, facilities, and information are secure and protected from hostile groups and countries,” the report said. But it went on to note that Department of Energy investigators had found weaknesses in the Los Alamos lab’s ability “to assure that laptop, desktop, and related equipment are appropriately controlled and adequately safeguarded from loss or theft, and that classified computer use did not meet security standards.”
Meanwhile, the mystery of the missing DX- Division Zip disks was apparently solved. In January 2005, the FBI and the Department of Energy released a report that suggested the disks never existed. Although lab records indicated twelve disks were prepared, someone had apparently prepared bar codes for two disks before they were actually made – so only ten disks ever existed. However, the report contained a footnote that was not so assuring: “The forensic evidence does not prove that no other disks were created, only that they need not have been.” Thus, despite the report, the question still lingered. In 2005, Los Alamos’ new director, Robert Kuckuck, confirmed the nebulous conclusion, stating that the “disks, probably never existed.” Were there disks, and if so, were they stolen, placed behind a copy machine, or sold to one of our country’s enemies? No one apparently really knows with surety – at least, no one who should know.
Bill Desmond, acting associate administrator for Defense Nuclear Security stated that the National Nuclear Security Administration was unaware of the extent to which Los Alamos employees disregarded security procedures. “An inventory,” said Desmond, “showed that large amounts of top-secret material, besides the questionable pair of Zip disks – were not being properly tracked.”
With the enigma of the missing DX disks allegedly solved, Nanos was about to tell his DX-Division personnel to resume their normal duties. But the lab had a few more alarming calamities to deal with.
On February 9, 2005, a few hours after President Bush announced he wanted to fund Los Alamos with an extra four million dollars to study new weapons that could destroy hardened, deeply buried targets; the lab experienced its own “bunker buster” denotation.
Don Brown, a lab contractor responsible for evaluating quality control over Department of Energy nuclear facilities, told “CBS Evening News” that he had uncovered several safety violations at the lab’s Technical Area- 18, where sub-critical nuclear experiments were being performed. Brown said the types of problems he discovered would put a halt to work at any other nuclear facility. For example, he found more than 1,000 faulty welds, which made the facility susceptible to nuclear accidents many times worse than in Chernobyl. Brown tried to explain. “I attempted to resolve the problems with UC and LANL officials, but they ignored me,” he said. “Instead, they sent me a letter telling me they were taking those assignments away from me.”
In response to Brown’s charges, I feel lab spokesperson Kevin Roark gave few details of what exact actions were being taken. “There is a very aggressive program in place to rectify the very issues,” he said.
A weary Nanos resigned as director in May 2005, being the shortest serving director in the lab’s history, and was replaced by Robert Kuckuck. Kuckuck didn’t have long to wait until feeling the sting of LANL ways. In July 2005, a long-time lab employee failed to follow procedures when opening a package containing radioactive americium-241. This safety violation resulted in the americium-241 contaminating houses and another lab in four states. Terry Wallace, the lab’s associate director for strategic research, called the contamination “low level, but serious.” More grim news came soon. On August 3, 2005, Kuckuck was told that nearly three weeks earlier, two lab employees had inhaled nitric and hydrochloric acid fumes, sending one of the employees to the hospital for nearly a week. Contrary to policy, the employees did not report the mishap to occupational medicine that day, and no one told the new director until August 3. Three employees were placed on paid leave pending investigations of both potentially serious safety violations.
A few years ago, this situation may have been handled differently at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. In the 1980s, lab employee Ben Ortiz became violently ill, believing his illness was caused by his toxic exposure at the lab. His superiors made an appointment with him with the lab’s paid physician. Although Ortiz had been soldering silver and cadmium and working bare handed, nearly elbow-deep in vats of chemical solvent for years, the doctor had a unique diagnosis. Ben, I think this is being caused by your age (he was 50 at the time), or maybe it is just your imagination. Then the stinger, “Ben, do you know what, En boca cerrada no entran muscas means?” “Yes”, said Ben. “It means keep your mouth shut.”
Regrettably, to the disadvantage of all Americans, Steve, Jim, and I propose the Spanish words En boca cerrada no entran muscas was a common Los Alamos concept, and we postulate it still is.