Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico has fired four workers for violating safety and security rules, and another will resign under pressure. The five were among 23 Los Alamos employees suspended earlier this year after incidents in which workers lost track of classified data and a researcher's eye was damaged by a laser. Seven other employees have been demoted or received other disciplinary action, lab director George "Pete" Nanos announced in an e-mail to lab staff yesterday.
The firings are the latest twist in the lab's troubles, which began on 7 July when officials concluded that computer disks holding classified data were missing from a safe in the lab's Weapons Physics Directorate. Then, on 14 July, a research intern's eye was seriously injured after she followed the lead of a senior scientist and looked into a laser apparatus that had not been turned off. Two days later, Nanos suspended all work at the laboratory and put the nearly two dozen workers on leave, saying employees weren't taking security and safety rules seriously (ScienceNOW, 23 July). The Federal Bureau of Investigation also began an investigation, although politicians briefed on the case say it now appears that the missing disks never existed and that their disappearance was the product of an inventory error.
Still, Nanos decided that three workers involved in that case, and two involved in the laser accident, had to go. One additional employee remains under investigation. Ten others have been cleared of any wrongdoing and will return to work. "We fit the punishment to the acts that were done," Nanos told wire service reporters. Lab officials declined to identify any of the workers or their positions, but Los Alamos researchers told ScienceNOW that the departing workers include at least one "senior" scientist involved in laser research.
Meanwhile, portions of the lab remain shut down at an estimated cost of $5 million per day. The University of California, which runs the lab for the Department of Energy, is still deciding whether it will compete to keep the lab when its contract expires next year.
Los Alamos National Laboratory