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"Forget the Rest" blog

For Immediate Release July 22, 2004

Disarmament Group Calls for Greater Openness, Accountability at New Mexico Nuclear Labs 

Current Problems “Tip of Iceberg,” Study Group Warns;

Attempts to Impose Greater Security Unlikely to Succeed

Contact: Greg Mello or Darwin BondGraham, 505-265-1200

Albuquerque, NM – Recent events have reminded Congress and the public that Los Alamos is in need of greater oversight.  More perceptive observers understand that the problems at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), while arguably the most severe of the three nuclear labs, are hardly limited to Los Alamos alone.  The persistence through the decades of problems at Los Alamos and Livermore especially make it clear that the Department of Energy, the University of California, and Congress are each failing in its oversight function in fundamental ways – and in ways not being mentioned in the current buzz.

Remarks from responsible officials at Los Alamos, the Department of Energy, and from Congress quoted in the press in the last week express understandable frustrations, but shed little light on either the causes of security problems or their likely solutions.  Some of these statements appear to be little more than grasping at straws, attempts to shift blame or find scapegoats, or posturing.  Many remarks sound remarkably like echoes of statements made after the discovery of similar problems in recent years.   Sometimes those who are complaining the loudest are the very persons most responsible for the conditions that create or allow the problems to persist. 

Two positive exceptions stand out from the largely-meaningless din.  Harold Agnew, quoted in this mornings New York Times, said "I just don't think it's a big deal.  They're responding to politics, I think. There are rules, and people are breaking the rules; they should be fired. I don't think it's any national disaster or calamity."[1]  We heartily agree.

A second perceptive remark in the press, from Chick Keller, a retired LANL scientist, goes to the question of what kind of “politics” may be involved.  "The odds-makers say the answer is the University of Texas.  Now, what was the question?"[2]

At this point, it seems to us that everyone involved in this mess should be seeking greater clarity and realism about the issues involved and about what can – and cannot – be done about them.  In that spirit, we offer the following observations and suggestions.  What follows isn’t polished and isn’t complete by a long shot, but we hope that portions here and there may be somewhat helpful to interested parties.

What won’t help 

First off, tough talk from Pete Nanos or anyone else won’t help much, although it could cause many conscientious people to quit or retire early.  Belittling employees and imposing draconian penalties on people not directly responsible will not help.  It will hurt.  Los Alamos understands itself to be a scientific laboratory, not a military organization. 

What else is unhelpful?  Top officials and congresspersons flying in for a day and promising more effective reforms and greater attention – again – isn’t helpful.  We’ve heard it all before.  Generally these good folks are so far up the information pyramid, so sporadically engaged, and so caught up with current politics – that’s their job, after all – that they have no real idea what Los Alamos’ real problems are.  If they do know, they sure aren’t saying.

Changing the operating contractor certainly won’t help.  In fact it is likely to hurt, as any new contractor will have a “honeymoon” or grace period, with looser government oversight and enforcement.  More important, a new contractor will be able to negotiate a looser contract with the Department of Energy than will the beleaguered University of California, thus passing over an important opportunity for reform.  Many journalists do not understand that DOE and NNSA are weak, even vestigial, agencies.  Fully 95% of the U.S. nuclear weapons program is conducted by contractors.

But most of the people with real power in this situation give no indication of actually wanting to improve Los Alamos.  Their few actions and long record of inactions suggest they really just want the bad publicity to go away as soon as possible. 

We agree with Harold Agnew and Chick Keller that some of these folks want a different contractor, for a variety of possible reasons not being stated.  There are a great many such possible reasons, ranging from cash flow, to perceived prestige, hope of special access to jobs, and belief in the value of future patents.  Could a new contractor really gain control over the billions of dollars now in employee retirement accounts, as Harold Agnew said?  Whatever the answer, future retirement savings will be substantial. 

There are other possible reasons for interest in Los Alamos.  Some may want to gain control of the political lever represented by Los Alamos’s role in the annual certification of the nuclear stockpile, a very powerful lever indeed, or to control Los Alamos’ ideological contribution to national security debates, which helps set the tone for other decisions.  Some may wish to remove cultural impediments in Los Alamos to the development, testing, and production of new weapons, as has been mentioned elliptically in reports to the House by the Foster Panel reviews of the stockpile stewardship program.  It is not necessary to overhaul the culture of both physics laboratories; a controversy between the labs about a particular technical point related to some nuclear weapon’s certification might be sufficient.  Los Alamos, in some peoples’ minds, needs more discipline and greater “mission buy-in.”  Admiral Nanos, former chief of strategic systems for the Navy, who initiated a large and still largely secret program of new warhead research hidden within the “stockpile stewardship” program at the three nuclear labs while at the Navy,[3] may be one of the people who believes this.  

Some may understand that since Los Alamos has great power in New Mexico, power in Los Alamos may translate to power in the Governor’s office and with the New Mexico senators, who at the moment play central roles in U.S. energy policy and other issues. 

To sum up, Los Alamos has become much more powerful in the past decade; that power has many facets, and it would be unusual if such growing power did not attract increasing interest.  The University of California has largely allowed that power to remain fallow as far as its own institutional interests are concerned, and LANL is ripe for a hostile takeover.

What will help

But what is the solution?  Paradoxical as it may appear to some, we think a core part of the solution to Los Alamos’ security problems is greater openness.  Los Alamos’s actual problems, we think, will continue to fester until sunlight and fresh air are brought in, although attention to these problems comes and goes and appears, to our eyes, to be politically driven.  We believe Los Alamos needs openness, democratic accountability, and truly independent oversight by thoughtful people with more than one-day attention spans.  The security problems we now see at the lab are a direct result of the isolation fostered by management in recent years, an isolation to which Los Alamos is always especially prone due to its isolated geographic situation.  

Openness, however, is risky, because Los Alamos has a lot more problems than have appeared in the press so far.  In fact, what has appeared so far is just the tip of the iceberg.  Despite the risk, genuinely responsible officials should at least consider the possibility that bad press is not itself the problem.  Employee theft, lax security, unsafe practices, poor fiscal stewardship, widespread featherbedding, the substitution of marketing and public relations for science by many lab managers – these are closer to what are traditionally considered “problems.” 

Exposure of these problems, of which bad press is a inevitable part, is from our perspective a part of the solution, an essential part.  Experience shows that laboratory management, DOE and NNSA, and Congress with its quite small investigative capacity, will not pay sufficient attention to a problem until and unless the independent agencies of society and the press are involved.  In the case of DOE and NNSA, without the press they simply lack the power to solve the problems at Los Alamos.  The attention of the press and Congress comes and goes, and Los Alamos will not really improve until the cover-ups stop. 

If democracy, safety, national security, fiscal probity, and wise government decisions were the real management goals, there would be little downside to exposure, debate, and – heaven forbid – improvement, aka change.  But if maintaining Los Alamos at $2.2 billion per year or more is the real overriding goal – of, to pick a few actors, NNSA, the contractor community, Congress, and regional newspaper publishers (who in New Mexico have considerable commercial interests sensitive to laboratory funding – then all real problems should be covered up to the greatest extent possible.  Where minor problems bubble up (and there are always problems to be found, and so they will) a witch hunt can be created around them without threatening the core of the enterprise. 

To the most powerful actors, the “openness cure” is unacceptable.  With openness, real congressional scrutiny, and thoughtful public debate, Los Alamos would necessarily decline in scale and increase in quality and security.  But the latter are secondary considerations. 

Who, then, is responsible for these security lapses?  A few “cowboy” employees?  Some employees are indeed “cowboys” and need to be punished, maybe even fired.  But a word to the wise: creative people can be freewheeling.  Get rid of the cowboys altogether and you may get rid of the science.  You can have all the nuclear weapons you want without great science.  It’s a mature technology.  But if it’s a temple of science you want, tread lightly.

Is the “culture” responsible for security lapses?  It’s a stab in the right direction, but only people can be responsible for anything.  Naming a “culture” as the culprit is pretty safe – and pretty lame, if its stops there.  Culture, of course, is mostly made by people, and some people are a great deal more influential than others.  Who are they? 

We think those most responsible for the current problems are those who choose the lab’s mission, who choose how that mission is to be accomplished, who decide how large Los Alamos is going to be relative to the job it is supposed to do, and those who decide how closed – especially how intellectually closed – Los Alamos is going to be to the world.  These factors, more than any others, determine its “culture.”  To those officials, directors, congressional committee members, and regents who are unhappy about the Los Alamos “culture,” one can fairly ask, “Where have you  been?”

Is Los Alamos overfunded?

A 1999 analysis by the Study Group suggested that the nuclear weapons mission of Los Alamos, were it reconfigured to be more conservative, efficient, and secure, would require about one-fourth the funding Los Alamos now receives for that mission.  The LANL weapons program would be, after those cuts, comparable in funding to the average it received during the Cold War – a period when LANL designed and tested several dozen weapon and weapon variants for the stockpile.[4] 

Without going into the history of how such obesity came about, we are suggesting that LANL is grossly over-funded, and that this has a great deal to do with its “cultural” problems.  Remember, nuclear explosive devices are relatively simple objects, composed of very few components designed with high precision.  The technology is mature.  Not one flagship program of the “stockpile stewardship” program is technically necessary to indefinitely maintain the U.S. nuclear stockpile in a “safe” and reliable condition, as we will be happy to explain to you in great detail if you like.  Quite the reverse.  The stewardship program as it has been configured by the labs and sold to Congress with the willing complicity of the arms control community is an institutional device for developing unanswerable questions and unaccountable programs – a funding machine, in other words.  And, we might add, it creates unsolvable security problems. 

Overfunding is the reason why there is widespread cynicism, featherbedding, make-work, over-selling of programs, and lack of productivity at LANL.  Losing a few disks is just a symptom of a much larger problem.  One need not depend upon anecdotal information.  Pick up any large LANL program – virtually all of them exhibit poor clarity of initial mission, cost overruns, schedule slippage, and “mission creep.”  The underlying reason for most of these project management problems is that most of these projects were never needed in the first place.  To paraphrase one wag, LANL is a $2.2 billion answer looking for a question.

Not long ago, total nuclear weapons budgets in the $2-3 billion range were considered a reasonable target by some in Congress.  For example, in 1992, after more than a decade of record funding levels at the weapons labs during the Reagan-Bush era,  the widely-respected Chair of the House Science Committee George Brown suggested a 60% cumulative cut in laboratory budgets over five years, which would culminate in a nuclear weapons research, development, testing, and production (RDT&P) budget similar to that we suggest.[5] 

Instead, what has happened since 1992 is that RDT&P budgets (what are now the “Weapons Activities” NNSA budgets, plus administrative costs) have increased 10% in constant dollars, and increased 67% since their relative low point in 1995. 

Los Alamos nuclear weapons budgets, meanwhile, have increased 38% since 1992, much greater than the average for the complex as a whole, and LANL nuclear weapon budgets have nearly tripled in the past decade, reaching $1,613 million this year from a low of about $550 million in 1995 (in constant 2004 dollars).[6] 

The low budgets we suggest will cause of chorus of howls, nearly all coming from people who know virtually nothing about nuclear weapons, or the labs, or the nuclear weapons program, or else who have quite different aims than simply maintaining the stockpile.  A more sophisticated but revealing argument is sometimes made that without high funding levels, the nation will lose “confidence” in the nuclear weapons enterprise itself.  Indeed, and to this question we must now turn.

Do Los Alamos weapons programs help with security even if they don’t lose disks?           

Beyond the preliminary considerations touched upon so far – which in our view would be elementary if LANL enjoyed anything resembling actual oversight – a national debate is badly overdue on the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. national security policy and the future configuration of the nuclear weapons complex, including the labs.  Such a debate would examine more deeply the security costs and benefits of LANL programs, examining the kitchen in which sits the teapot that is host to the current tempest.  NNSA has promised a far-reaching probe, right?  Of course they won’t have one, but the nation should.

The U.S. now has about 10,400 nuclear weapons.  Current executive branch guidance calls for maintenance of about 6,000 nuclear weapons, most of which are to be of improved or entirely new design, after 2012.  Russia, the U.S.’s only nuclear competitor, has in recent years expressed a desire to reduce its stockpile to the range of 1,500 weapons and might well be induced to go lower still under the right conditions, which are beyond our scope here. 

As recently as 2000 the U.S. committed, along with Russia, China, France, and Britain, to the eventual complete elimination of its nuclear stockpile, in compliance with our ratified treaty obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).[7]  U.S. nuclear weapons are being substantially upgraded in accuracy and versatility now, and plans for new weapons have been approved by Congress and are in the initial stages of development.

Where does this leave us?  Even if Los Alamos solved its superficial security problems (as opposed to its publicity problem and its choice-of-contractors problem), and reconfigured and downscaled its nuclear weapons program, would Los Alamos then be actually contributing to U.S. security, or would it remain a fountainhead of insecurities greater than the problems it purports to solve, and certainly far greater than the dreaded missing disks?  It is no surprise to you, reader, that we think so.

And most Americans agree with us.  The great preponderance of Americans (84%) support eliminating nuclear weapons pursuant to existing treaty obligations once they hear about those obligations, but discussion of any of this is all but absent in public discourse, so most people don’t know of these obligations.[8]  It is more than reasonable for us to suggest that the entire LANL nuclear weapons program is a liability to national security, rather than an asset.  Given existing law, and indeed public opinion, the burden of proof is on those who assert otherwise.  To us, the belief that nuclear deterrence is the ultimate guarantor of national security is no more credible than a belief in little green men in UFOs.

A “high reliability culture” at Los Alamos?

It is worthwhile touching upon what seems to us a pervasive fallacy afflicting most parties commenting on the current LANL security foibles.  The fallacy, in brief, is this: it is possible to effectively protect all important secrets in a very large and complex scientific enterprise involving hundreds of scientific programs and thousands of scientists interacting widely with scientists and engineers from all over the U.S. and the world.  No one will share important secrets by accident or out of carelessness, for personal gain or career enhancement, for ideological reasons, or because of blackmail. 

Why anyone should believe this is not clear, as it doesn’t make sense and has never been achieved in modern experience.  Getting rid of all classified removable electronic media (CREM) might be a baby step, but that’s all it is.  If it is not possible to adequately protect secrets – and this is not the same as not trying to do so, or condoning laxity – this fact would have fundamental implications for LANL programs. 

Suppose, in other words, that for some programs there was some irreducible small possibility of events which would have a very high negative security impact.  In that case, the overall hazard – the security cost, in other words – involved in those programs might or might not be acceptable.  Certainly, it would need to be weighed against the putative security benefit of that program.  In theory this is what is done all the time.  But myths can blind us, and deceive our sense of proportion. 

The idea that the risk of incidents (security incidents, in this case, or accidents, in the safety field) can be lowered essentially to zero is often called “high reliability theory.”  Its enthusiasts, including LANL contractor Todd La Porte of the Berkeley High Reliability Organization, believe this theory and its subsidiary recommendations to be widely applicable to real-world institutions, subject to certain severe assumptions about the intellectual, social, and political life of those institutions. 

The origin, as well as the end, of this approach is the military-style organization.  Whether the assumptions of high reliability theory could ever apply to a culture of scientific creativity, or whether its recommendations be compatible with creativity at Los Alamos or anywhere else is extremely doubtful.[9]

Who can provide accountability? 

According to the Government Accounting Office (GAO), many, or even most, large Department of Energy (DOE) or National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) capital projects fail to one degree or another.[10]  Los Alamos shares in this abysmal record, and some Los Alamos projects are failing now. 

But the full extent of failure at Los Alamos can’t be tallied unless one is prepared to ask some big questions, questions government auditors don’t ask, although Congress and its auditors should.  The GAO report just cited is evidence for the GAO’s own incapacity. 

Is the project in question necessary in the first place?  How necessary?  Is it legal, i.e. with respect to U.S. treaty obligations, or is it even moral?  Assuming the project objective is worthy, is there a simpler and cheaper way to accomplish it?  Is the lab in question the best place to do the work, or is the project as we know it merely an artifact of political opportunity, a piece of political pork?  Do the goals of the project relate to objective science and engineering, or do they just reflect institutional priorities, investments, and capabilities? 

Congress is incapable of asking most of these questions because members of Congress do not have the time, expertise, or interest, and because – as the historical record shows in distressing consistency over the past six decades – nuclear laboratory directors and managers are capable and practiced in the art of misleading congressional committees and presidents on crucial points, hiding the truth behind a bewildering smokescreen of science, pseudoscience, and outright lies couched in a labyrinth of secrets both appropriate and inappropriate, in compartments sealed by a “need to know,” or more deeply still by the oaths and penalties of “special-access,” or “black,” programs. 

Worse, Congress as a body has not delved deeply into nuclear policy and the value judgments that are part and parcel of it in more than a decade.  It has left the matter in the hands of the executive branch, which for its part works quite hard to preserve these prerogatives, going so far as to strenuously deny access by any member of Congress to U.S. nuclear targeting plans.  The end of the world, not to be too flip about it, is just too classified to discuss. 

Well, what about the executive?  Can DOE or NNSA effectively oversee their own shop?  At these agencies, the political appointees at the top do not really control the departments they supervise.  They sit at the apex of an information pyramid in which bad news filters up with difficulty.  They generally do not understand the programs and do not know what is going on in them.  No one is going to tell them, and the topmost managers usually don’t stay there long.  Who would?  As mentioned before, DOE and NNSA are in many ways vestigial governmental agencies, presiding over an empire of private contractors who spend about 95% of the money and do nearly all the work.  The U.S. nuclear weapons program is thus mostly a private, for-profit affair, operated by the largest defense contractors in the U.S. and indeed in the world, all of whom contribute handsomely to political races and parties.  These contractors and their employees and subcontractors have no great incentive to bring forth major problems in their own work – although not infrequently some individuals, often at great risk to their careers, their families’ incomes, and their health, do exactly that.

Who, then, is left?  From what quarter can the corrective force come? 

In the final analysis, the only agency in the United States now capable of reining in huge, secret, rogue institutions which threaten to slip, or which have already slipped, the reins of democratic control is the agency comprised of the people themselves.  It is this corrective force, in all its subtle, non-linear, and unpredictable modes of power, which must be mobilized.  Wise democratic leaders and thoughtful laboratory directors will seek to do just this.  They need allies.  They need external benchmarks of success.  They need fresh reference to the core values of our society, which, believe it or not, is more than the business community. 

Perhaps the biggest enemy within the laboratory complex to the insights that could set these laboratories free is the creeping conquest of the labs by a corporate, “bottom-line” perspective.  As a linguistic analysis of laboratory documents over the past two decades would readily show, for many years this ideology has been gradually supplanting an ethic of government service, in parallel with its conquest of most of American life. 

In this regard, we find a tremendous difference, on the average, in objectivity and conscientiousness between the federal employees at the DOE and the contractor employees at Los Alamos.  The DOE employees by far the more conscientious, clear, and honest.  We therefore suggest that, contrary to recent congressional direction, the DOE workforce should be greatly expanded here and across the complex and given greater powers of oversight, more didactic powers.  Gone should be the bizarre communitarian ideals that put UC employees on DOE employees’ personnel evaluation committees, for example.  The lab person who denies physical or intellectual access to a DOE auditor should be warned the first time, and fired the next.  This expansion of DOE’s responsibilities, and more importantly, its powers, should be done even as the overall level of work at Los Alamos is greatly decreased. 

Portions of this recommendation echo recent recommendations of the Defense Nuclear Safety Board, which has had similar concerns.   We stop short of recommending complete federalization of LANL for now, but favor this to the currently-discussed options.

Conclusions in brief

In conclusion, the real solutions to Los Alamos’ problems include openness, gradual but radical downscaling with attendant changes in program goals and direction, an increased federal presence and role, and both ideological and structural changes consequent to a reassessment of LANL’s primary mission.  While superficial reforms like eliminating CREM may be modestly helpful, hopes for successfully imposing a culture of hypersecurity are unrealistic, inflated by short-term political considerations, appear not to be based on any analysis of the roots of the LANL’s cultural problems, and are likely to fail.


[1] Ralph Blumenthal, “Idle at Los Alamos: A Weapons Lab as Its Own Worst Enemy,” July 22, 2004, New York Times.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Greg Mello, “That Old Designing Fever,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, January/February 2000, pp. 51-57.

[4]   A short summary of this study was published as Greg Mello, Andrew Lichterman , and William Weida, “The Stockpile Stewardship Charade,” Issues in Science and Technology, Spring 1999, National Academy of Science, available at http://www.issues.org/issues/15.3/mello.htm.  This year, LANL nuclear weapons funding totals $1,613 million, or 73% of all LANL spending ($2,229 million).  Cold War average spending for LANL as a whole was $661 million (2004 dollars).  Roughly 2/3 of LANL spending was for nuclear weapons during the Cold War, i.e. about ¼ of today’s level.

[5] Congressman George Brown, Letter to Secretary James D. Watkins, Secretary, Department of Energy, February 8, 1992.

[6] Los Alamos Study Group analysis from Department of Energy congressional budget requests.

[7] See www.lasg.org for background.

[8] See Stephen Kull, et. al., “Americans on WMD Proliferation,” April 15, Program on International Policy Attitudes, University of Maryland, at http://www.pipa.org/OnlineReports/WMD/WMDreport_04_15_04.pdf.

[9] Important references on these issues are Scott Sagan, 1993, The Limits of Safety, Organizations, Accidents, and Nuclear Weapons, Princeton University Press; Charles Perrow, 1984 and 1999, Normal Accidents: Living with High Risk Technologies, Princeton University Press; and Lloyd Dumas, Lethal Arrogance: Human Fallibility and Dangerous Technologies, St. Martin’s Press, 1999.  Sagan reviews high reliability theory and gives citations to its early canonical texts.

[10] Between 1980 and 1996, DOE cancelled some 31 out of 80 “Major System Acquisitions” (MSAs), on which more than $10 billion had already been spent.  As of the end of this period, only 15 of the 80 projects that were begun during the period had yet been completed; of these, “most of them were finished behind schedule and with cost overruns.”  Of the 34 MSAs still continuing in 1996, “cost overruns and ‘schedule slippage’ have occurred and continue to occur on many of the ongoing projects.”  Government Accounting Office, “Department of Energy: Major System Acquisitions From 1980 Through 1996,” RCED-97-85R, March 4, 1997.


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