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Firing Draws Protest at Los Alamos

21 September 2004 (All day)
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Safety warning. Los Alamos laboratory has fired researcher involved in a laser accident that prompted this flyer.

A senior scientist fired this week by Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) as part of a response to long-standing safety and security problems says he will contest his dismissal. The scientist is one of a dozen workers punished in what Director G. Peter Nanos called a move to restore public “trust and confidence” in the lab.

Last week, in an e-mail to lab staff, Nanos announced that he was firing four workers, punishing seven others, and awaiting one resignation (ScienceNOW, 16 September). Lab officials would not identify the punished workers but told reporters that three were involved in a July incident in which officials concluded that computer disks holding classified data were missing from a safe in the lab's Weapons Physics Directorate. Politicians briefed on the case say it now appears that the missing disks never existed and were the product of sloppy record-keeping. Other disciplined scientists were involved in a laser accident earlier this year that injured an intern.

"We will challenge the [firing] ... and try to get it reversed or reduced," says David Cremers, an award-winning laser researcher and 24-year lab veteran who was involved the accident. A lab investigation report concluded that the researchers were not wearing the required eye protection and had ignored other safety rules.In addition to firing Cremers, LANL is negotiating the resignation of chemist Thomas J. Meyer, the lab's associate director for strategic research and a member of the National Academy of Sciences. Meyer declined comment.The incidents were the latest in a string of several safety and security lapses that in July prompted Nanos to suspend 23 employees and shut down all work at the 12,000-employee lab (Science, 23 July, p. 462). Nanos says the punishments mark the beginning of a new era, and officials say the entire lab should be back to work by next month. "We are not the old Los Alamos anymore," Nanos said at a 17 September all-hands meeting. But one LANL researcher says the turmoil has put morale "near rock bottom. Some of us are looking for the exits."

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