APS News

New Management Tackles Difficult Problems at Los Alamos

By Ernie Tretkoff

Several months after new management took over at Los Alamos National Laboratory, the lab continues to struggle with security and budget problems and low employee morale.

Until last year, the lab had been managed by the University of California. Following a series of security and safety problems that led to a total shutdown of the lab, the Department of Energy put the management contract out to bid. Last December the DOE selected Los Alamos National Security (LANS) as the new contractor. LANS, a collaboration of the University of California, Bechtel National, BWX Technologies, and Washington Group International, beat out the University of Texas/Lockheed Martin collaboration for the contract. The new management took over in June.

The new director, nuclear physicist Michael Anastasio, came to LANL from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, where he had been the director since 2002.

In a recent security incident, classified data were found in the home of a former subcontractor during a drug raid by local police. In addition to drug paraphernalia, police found computer memory sticks containing classified documents from the lab, as well as hard copies of classified documents. The documents had apparently been taken from the lab by a woman who had worked as an archivist transferring paper documents to electronic form and indexing them. Lab officials have declined to comment on the details of the ongoing investigation in this incident.

In an interview with APS News shortly before this incident occurred, Anastasio said that he felt the lab was moving in the right direction. “We’re very pleased with how things are moving forward,” he said. “We’ve made some significant strides in safety and security.”  Anastasio said that his message to employees on safety and security has been to emphasize personal responsibility. He said he believes this approach has been successful. “If you look at our statistics, albeit for four months, the trends are all very positive,” he said.

After the drug raid, Anastasio said in a statement, “this is a serious matter, and we are taking immediate steps to address it.”

Susan Seestrom, Associate Director for Experimental Physics at LANL, said that security had been given increased emphasis under the new management. Many small improvements have been made, some of which started before the new management took over, she said. For instance, the lab has been working to get rid of removable media such as thumb drives, she said. “We’re trying to put in things that lessen potential for human error. We’ve seen a downturn in the most serious security incidents,” she told APS News shortly after this recent incident. Seestrom is chair of the APS Division of Nuclear Physics.

However, not all employees have noticed significant change. Brad Holian, a physicist who retired from the lab, but still works there part-time, said he hadn’t noticed any major changes in the approach to security under the new management, but he did believe Anastasio would handle the incident better than previous management.  “Anastasio seems to be a more reasonable and calm individual,” said Holian. He points out that Los Alamos’ record of safety and security has been similar to that of Lawrence Livermore and Sandia National Labs, but that Los Alamos has received much more publicity.

Although security has been the dominant issue in recent weeks, the new management has faced several other problems as well.

Employee morale had been low leading up to the change in management, due in part to uncertainty about practical matters such as employee benefits, as well as concern over whether the new management would be supportive of science.

Anastasio said that it will take time for the new management to earn the employees’ confidence, but that said he believes morale has been improving as some of the concerns over practical matters have died down.  “I believe communication is really key for the employees. When there’s a lack of information, that generates a lot of anxiety,” he added.

Seestrom also saw some improvement in employee morale, though she admitted it was spotty.  “Where people are really making progress in their technical work, their morale is pretty good. I see a lot of energy in the scientific workplace,” said Seestrom.

Holian was less upbeat. “I would say that there’s still a sense of demoralization and uncertainty on the part of the staff,” he said. Holian has spoken up before against some management decisions and some decisions imposed by Congress and the DOE, but says he is not critical of the lab’s scientific staff.

Another physicist who has worked at Los Alamos for many years, who spoke with APS News on the condition of anonymity, said he hadn’t noticed any significant change under the new management. “The one thing I have seen is that there are more managers. The research environment is about the same,” he said. Bureaucratic hassles, including large amounts of paperwork and time-consuming but irrelevant training, continue to make it difficult to do research, he said.

Several other scientists contacted by APS News either did not return requests for comment or declined to comment on the record.

Another issue the new management has had to deal with is new expenses. While Congress is expected to keep the budget for LANL approximately flat, new expenses including taxes, management fees, salary increases, and retirement benefits have led to a budget shortfall of about $175 million.

Anastasio said he will deal with the issue through efficiencies, and by reducing the contract workforce. Fees for the lab’s customers will not increase, and there will be no cuts among the regular laboratory staff, though some projects might have to be scaled back, he said.  Seestrom said she believed the budget crunch would force the lab to be more efficient.

High overhead costs had already been making it difficult for scientists to obtain outside funding for their research, said the scientist who requested anonymity. “My hopes when the new management came in were high. I thought they would lower overhead and make us more efficient.  Unfortunately I haven’t seen any evidence of that to date.” Some scientists at the lab have worried that the new management company might not be as supportive of science as they would like, or that Congress or the DOE would push the lab towards more weapons manufacturing at the expense of basic research.

Both Anastasio and Seestrom emphasized that the management supports science. “I see really strong support from management for science in the lab,” Seestrom said.

Some employees are uncertain. “They say golden words. Anastasio honestly hopes to promote science,” said Holian. However, Holian and other scientists worry that with the current budget situation and a lack of support for science in Congress, the lab management may not be able to promote science.

Seestrom says that the weapons program helps generates good science. “There’s a very strong manufacturing component to what we’re doing at the lab,” she said. “That enterprise supports a lot of basic materials science for our laboratory. We develop new processes for them, and so that keeps us being at the forefront of that part of materials science.”

Anastasio believes that in the future the lab will continue its mission, which includes not just nuclear weapons, but national security in a broader sense.  “I see the laboratory to be a great national security science laboratory. That’s my vision. Clearly it encompasses our traditional core mission which is sustaining the US nuclear deterrent. But it also means missions we have in nonproliferation and countering terrorism,” he said. “In the future, I think it will mean national security in the sense of economic security, and the interrelationship with energy and the environment and the economic health of the country.”

Recruiting scientists to the lab has always been difficult, in part because of its isolated location. “This important mission, as well as the great scientific staff and facilities, can help attract the best scientists to work at the lab,” says Anastasio.  “We can work on national scale issues that can affect the whole country. So having a really important mission and challenge to work on is a strong attractor.”

The physicist who preferred not to be named also said that a dedication to the lab’s mission attracted scientists to the lab.  “People I work with have a strong commitment to doing work that matters to the country. They believe in what we’re doing and why we’re here,” he said. However, he added, “If I were a young person I would not seriously consider coming here. It’s a different place than it was a decade ago.”

Holian said that despite problems, there are still pockets of quality at the lab. “People do carry on good work in spite of the trouble,” he said.

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Contributing Editor: Jennifer Ouellette
Staff Writer: Ernie Tretkoff