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Lab relations sour as ‘missing disk’ charges are proved false

Los Alamos lab's computer disks didn't go missing - they never existed.

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Scold news: lab chief Peter Nanos's reproaches may spark mutiny. Credit: J. GEISSLER/AP

Two classified computer disks that allegedly vanished last summer at the Los Alamos nuclear-weapons laboratory in New Mexico never existed, according to an investigation by the government agency that oversees the lab.

The security lapse, together with an unrelated accident, led to a three-month shutdown of the laboratory last summer, with director Peter Nanos accusing scientists of operating in a “cowboy culture” (see Nature 430, 387; 2004 ). The conclusion that the disks never existed has infuriated many of the lab's researchers

“The talk in the halls is mutinous,” says Doug Roberts, a computer scientist at the laboratory. “I've been at the lab for 20 years and morale has never been this bad before.”

The Los Alamos National Laboratory has been battered in recent years by a wave of scandals. In 1999, it was the subject of national scrutiny when Wen Ho Lee, a Taiwanese-born scientist, was accused of smuggling nuclear secrets to China (see Nature 398, 96; 1999 10.1038/18079) and subsequently acquitted. In 2000, two computer hard drives containing classified data disappeared from a secure area inside the laboratory, only to reappear later behind a photocopier (see Nature 405, 725; 2000 10.1038/35015770). And in 2003, the laboratory's director and deputy director resigned following accusations that they had improperly fired two whistleblowers who had alleged widespread theft at the lab (see Nature 421, 99; 2003 10.1038/421099a).

The latest trouble for the laboratory began early last July, when an inventory of classified data in its weapons-physics directorate revealed that four disk drives were missing. Almost immediately, two of the drives were found to have been improperly moved to a different building, but another two could not be located. In response, Nanos shut down large parts of the laboratory and publicly chided the scientists working there for failing to follow security procedures. “This willful flouting of the rules must stop, and I don't care how many people I have to fire to make it stop,” he wrote in the 2 August issue of the laboratory's newsletter.

But now it seems that the missing drives were in fact an artefact of flawed inventory procedures. According to the report by the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), which was released on 28 January, 12 barcodes used to catalogue classified disk drives were issued to a group that needed only 10. The extra barcodes were nevertheless included in a master list, and so when auditors conducted an inventory last July, they concluded that two disks were missing. “The allegedly missing disks never existed and no compromise of classified material has occurred,” the report explains.

Many scientists at the laboratory say that the incident, together with Nanos's public rebuke, has profoundly damaged the relationship between Los Alamos researchers and the lab's management.

“Trust in upper management has been completely lost,” says Brad Holian, who has worked as a theoretical physicist at the laboratory for 32 years. Holian says that the three-month shutdown was the breaking point for many already frustrated scientists. “We were told in the theoretical division that we couldn't write down calculations on the blackboard,” he says. Many of his colleagues are leaving the lab, and Holian himself says that he plans to retire this March — years earlier than he had originally planned. “I think there are a lot of people in my situation,” he says.

In a statement accompanying the report, NNSA administrator Linton Brooks said that the University of California, which oversees the laboratory, would be fined around $5.1 million for what he describes as “major weaknesses in controlling classified material revealed by this incident”. Chris Harrington, a spokesman for the university, says that some of the money for the fine will come from the laboratory's discretionary research budget.

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http://www.nature.com/doifinder/10.1038/18079

http://www.nature.com/doifinder/10.1038/35015770

http://www.nature.com/doifinder/10.1038/421099a

http://www.nature.com/doifinder/10.1038/430387a

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Brumfiel, G. Lab relations sour as ‘missing disk’ charges are proved false. Nature 433, 447 (2005). https://doi.org/10.1038/433447a

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