George "Pete" Nanos has stepped down as director of Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) on the eve of a competition over who will manage the New Mexico weapons lab, the University of California (UC) announced Friday.
Nanos, a retired Navy admiral, joined the scandal-plagued laboratory--operated by UC for the Department of Energy (DOE)--in January 2003, pledging to right the ship. But tough reforms, a decision to shut the lab down last year after a laser accident (ScienceNOW 21 September, 2004), and his brash style earned him harsh reviews from lab scientists. A series of suspensions following the disappearance of classified disks (ScienceNOW 23 July, 2004)--later found to have never existed--led to outrage in New Mexico and Washington, D.C., alike. MIT historian Hugh Gusterson calls Nanos "the most unpopular director the lab has ever had."
"Nanos was between a rock and a hard place," says Pete Stockton, an investigator with Project on Government Oversight, a Washington, D.C., watchdog. Last week, Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board acting chairman A.J. Eggenberger told Congress that the shutdown--at an estimated cost exceeding $120 million--"resulted in the identification of numerous corrective actions." But at the same hearing, DOE's inspector general Gregory Friedman reviewed a litany of lingering management problems.
Nanos' rocky tenure, insiders say, underscores the risk facing UC's Board of Regents. "Some think UC might walk away" from the competition, says Doug Roberts, the LANL computer scientist who runs a website for anonymous comments from lab employees. Sandia National Laboratory operator Lockheed Martin, by contrast, has recruited Sandia's former director C. Paul Robinson for its bid (Science, 15 April 2005, p. 339). The National Nuclear Security Administration is expected to release final contract language shortly.
Nuclear weapons physicist Robert W. Kuckuck, 65, will become Los Alamos's interim director on 16 May. Oak Ridge National Laboratory director Jeff Wadsworth calls Kuckuck (pronounced "cook-cook") a "terrific team builder." A former deputy director of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, he is not expected to be part of UC's management team if it competes for the Los Alamos contract. Meanwhile, Nanos is taking a job with the Pentagon's Defense Threat Reduction Agency.