A security breach at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico last week is another setback for the University of California’s management of the nuclear weapons facility. The identity of the culprits is still not known. But we do know that the public relations damage to the university will likely decrease its chances of retaining control of the lab, while increasing the odds for the University of Texas and several companies announcing this week their intent to bid on the lab’s management contract.
On July 9 Los Alamos lab officials reported that two computer disks containing classified nuclear research information were missing. It is the third incident of missing classified data at the nuclear weapons lab in the last year. The loss of classified information came days before a July 12 Department of Energy deadline for competitors to express interest in bidding on Los Alamos’ management contract, set to expire in September 2005.
The Department of Energy decided last year to open competition on the lab contract, in part because of poor management and security mishaps under University of California’s leadership, which has managed the lab since 1943. This summer the DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration will be issuing a Request for Proposals. In addition to the University of California and the University of Texas, expected bidders include Lockheed Martin and Battelle Memorial Institute.
Given the timing of this latest incident, it makes one wonder if the individual or individuals behind the missing computer disks intentionally wanted to cast negative light on the University of California at the onset of the bidding process on the lab’s management contract. We can only guess about the motives, but whether the computer disks were taken for personal gain or as an act of malice toward the university, the incident adds to UC’s growing list of security problems at Los Alamos and will likely be a contributing factor when the DOE decides early next year on a new lab manager.
The University of California not retaining the Los Alamos contract might at first appear to be its loss. But the university has experienced a lot of grief in the past few years, with scrutiny from Congress and federal agencies, and lawsuits from citizens groups and lab employees. Elements within the University of California System might now think that managing the Los Alamos National Laboratory is more trouble than it is worth.
If the University of California leaves Los Alamos it could take with it parts of the paper trail that has accumulated over the past 61 years. Some of those records tell an unpleasant history of environmental contamination and callous disregard for worker safety. It would be in the university’s best interest to remove those documents from the lab.
A concern among some scientists and lab administrators could be that their research at Los Alamos would become the property of, or credited to, others if the lab management changes hands.
Some employees at Los Alamos are eager for change. They view UC as an absentee landlord that doesn’t treat workers fairly. A new manager won’t necessarily solve the lab’s problems, but some workers are ready to see UC leave.
Others to benefit if UC is ousted are some companies that currently subcontract at Los Alamos. One subcontractor, BWXT, has been in discussion with the University of Texas to form partnership to management the lab. Clearly BWXT would be better off as a partner rather than a subcontractor for UC.
Another beneficiary of a new lab manager would be the Department of Energy’s nuclear weapons program itself. During a transition period of new management, it might be more difficult for outside oversight and scrutiny, more difficult for opponents of new nuclear weapons development to access information about those programs.
Regardless of the intent behind the missing computer disks, security breaches under the University of California’s leadership like the incident last week will be perceived as the fault of the university. These breaches will embolden those who want the University of California to lose its management contract and will encourage institutions like the University of Texas and others who are vying to run the Los Alamos National Laboratory. This is unfortunate for those of us in Texas who do not want our flagship university involved with nuclear weapons development.
STEFAN WRAY is a writer and filmmaker in Austin, Texas, currently working on a documentary about the Los Alamos National Laboratory called “The WMDs Are In New Mexico.” He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org