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Government Science

The Political Assault On Los Alamos National Laboratory 215

Posted by samzenpus
from the toe-the-line dept.
Harperdog writes "Hugh Gusterson has a great article on the troubles at Los Alamos over the last decade. Since the late 1990s, nuclear weapons scientists at the US Department of Energy's Los Alamos National Laboratory have faced an unanticipated threat to their work, from politicians and administrators whose reforms and management policies—enacted in the name of national security and efficiency—have substantially undermined the lab's ability to function as an institution and to superintend the nuclear stockpile."
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The Political Assault On Los Alamos National Laboratory

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  • by bytesex (112972) on Thursday November 10, 2011 @06:59AM (#38010606) Homepage

    "Hoping Nanos would take the hint, employees planted âoefor saleâ signs on his lawn in the middle of the night. He once came out of church to find an obscene bumper sticker had been affixed to his car while he was praying. Things eventually got so bad that Nanos had a safe room installed in his home. In May 2005, faced with an unmanageable situation, Nanos abruptly resigned. âoeThe corks they are a-poppinâ(TM) tonight,â reacted one poster on the blog."

    The guy may not have been a pleasure to work with, but if this is not a sign of sloppiness and arrogance (and severe lack of human compassion and discipline), then I don't know what is.

    • by Sockatume (732728) on Thursday November 10, 2011 @07:35AM (#38010770)

      Being "a pleasure to work with" isn't a requisite for being a good administrator, it's true, but taking such an adversarial attitude to personnel that a mass staff revolt is launched is a sign that one is clearly not appropriate for the job.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      The article is spot-on. I was there for Act 1 and Act 2, and left when Act 3 was imminent. Those few left at LANL who I know have confirmed the accuracy of the paper about Act 3.

  • Frankly... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Tastecicles (1153671) on Thursday November 10, 2011 @07:00AM (#38010610)

    ...the idea of disappearing into a cloud of vapour at any time doesn't scare me anymore. I grew up with dive-under-the-desk drills, "Protect And Survive" [atomica.co.uk], "Threads" [imdb.com] (which terrified me the first time I watched it) and "When The Wind Blows" [imdb.com] (which made me cry). I'm so used to Government using scare tactics to get its own way I'm slap happy to them.

    What does frighten me is the fact that people are still scared of what TPTB to put it bluntly, won't ever do because they have too much to lose; TPTB know people are scared because people are dumb, panicky animals and that is ripe material to rob, rape and pillage.

    You can't rob, rape and pillage radioactive ash.

    Those who have everything they want at a whim are more afraid of losing it than those who have to scrimp, save, recycle, reuse and fight for it. I don't know why, it's just the way I see it. Probably some primal thing which says "You can't take it with you - you leave this world as you entered it, cold and naked." Or maybe I've just accepted the inevitability of corporeal mortality.

    • Re:Frankly... (Score:5, Insightful)

      by drinkypoo (153816) <martin.espinoza@gmail.com> on Thursday November 10, 2011 @07:25AM (#38010726) Homepage Journal

      Those who have everything they want at a whim are more afraid of losing it than those who have to scrimp, save, recycle, reuse and fight for it. I don't know why, it's just the way I see it. Probably some primal thing which says "You can't take it with you - you leave this world as you entered it, cold and naked." Or maybe I've just accepted the inevitability of corporeal mortality.

      Freedom's just another word for nothin' left to lose...

      • Re:Frankly... (Score:4, Insightful)

        by Tastecicles (1153671) on Thursday November 10, 2011 @07:50AM (#38010820)

        You're absolutely right!

        To borrow from Yoda: "Learn to free yourself of those things you are most afraid to lose."

        He was talking about exactly this. Material possessions are a crutch. You can't have exclusivity on ideas (no matter what patent laws are passed), which are infinitely more valuable to the whole of Humankind than a barrel of crude or a hole in the ground. If something helps you to live life more comfortably or is useful as a tool for doing something else, that's all it is - a tool. It's not worth dying for, or killing for, you can always get another. Or make another. To completely rely on something for what you consider survival (aside from bread and water), is to become a slave to it.

        Me? I'm a slave to my pocketknife. Easily the most useful and beloved of any item in my possession. Everything else is just gravy. But you know what? If I lose it, I can get another. It's still just a tool, if I lose it I can get another.

        I get the feeling this thread is turning into one of metaphysics...

        • Re:Frankly... (Score:4, Informative)

          by marcosdumay (620877) <marcosdumay@@@gmail...com> on Thursday November 10, 2011 @10:00AM (#38011690) Homepage Journal

          Yet, from what I remember from the movie, Yoda was talking about family and loved ones, not material possessions.

          Excuse me, but I refuse to learn to free myself from them. All you saying you have nothing to lose aren't looking very hard.

          • by drinkypoo (153816)

            Yoda was a muppet.

            Inner peace comes from... aw, who am I kidding, have you seen my posting history?

            I didn't say I have nothing left to lose, I said that's what true freedom is. And people who feel like they have nothing left to lose are effectively free. They can make decisions without the impediment of obligations to be met or possessions to be protected.

            I prefer at least a modicum of comfort.

          • Re:Frankly... (Score:4, Insightful)

            by overlordofmu (1422163) <overlordofmu@gmail.com> on Thursday November 10, 2011 @11:10AM (#38012430)

            And you will suffer for your attempts to hold on to your friends and family.

            This is Buddhism 101.

            Life is transitory. Time ends everything and everyone. Everyone you love will die. It is inevitable. There is nothing you can do to stop it.

            Your emotional attachment to the transitory things of this world are the source of your suffering. The only way to escape suffering is to cease to have attachments.

            • by Yetihehe (971185)

              THE only way to escape suffering is death.

    • by OzPeter (195038)

      ...the idea of disappearing into a cloud of vapour at any time doesn't scare me anymore. I grew up with dive-under-the-desk drills, "Protect And Survive" [atomica.co.uk], "Threads" [imdb.com] (which terrified me the first time I watched it) and "When The Wind Blows" [imdb.com] (which made me cry).

      You also need to watch On the beach [imdb.com] (the original) to round out your nuclear holocaust movies. It took me 30 years to actually sit down and watch it - partly because it was filmed where I grew up.

  • by Virtucon (127420) on Thursday November 10, 2011 @07:37AM (#38010780)

    Given the nature of the work and it's importance to National Security (I won't argue that point) the work of the individuals at LANL should be supervised and standards maintained; no question about it. I do agree that congress and previous administrations have over-reacted to situations but then again, we're talking about the stewardship of the nuclear arsenal here. Also, when have we never seen congress over-react to an even perceived problem where national security is concerned. The people who work at LANL have to be creative in what they do because since the Test Ban treaties they're work focuses on more theoretical simulations than actually getting to set off a nuke, and creativity and discipline don't necessarily go hand in hand, that also has to be realized. Leslie Groves had the same problems when they were building LANL and the first atomic weapons and he constantly was frustrated with the scientists because of the cultural differences between the military and academia. Despite all of this and under the tightest security all it took was a few sympathetic individuals to let the secrets out that gave the Soviets a huge leap in their project.

    I think what has to happen with places like Livermore and LANL is that congress and the administration have to work to maintain the secrecy necessary to protect the stockpile but also let the people flourish within the confines of the work being done. Those individuals realize the importance of the work and do their best day in and day out to do that job well, so it's not wholly necessary to put clamps on them that create barriers to their well being and satisfaction with their work.

  • by identity0 (77976) on Thursday November 10, 2011 @07:40AM (#38010788) Journal

    One wonders if Richard Feynman could work there now if he were still alive, given his hobby of safecracking and lockpicking to leave prank notes. But hey, it's not like they were doing anything important, right?

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Feynman#The_Manhattan_Project [wikipedia.org]

    Anyone know if there are any eccentrics left at the labs, or has it really been purged of 'weird people' like Feynman?

  • by MikeRT (947531) on Thursday November 10, 2011 @08:36AM (#38011070) Homepage

    While Lee was clearly a victim of racial profiling and media-enabled hysteria about Chinese espionage, this is not to say that he had done nothing wrong. He had, in fact, removed from the lab computer copies of top-secret nuclear weapons simulation codes, a serious offense for which he surely deserved to lose his clearance and his job. There is no evidence, however, that he ever gave the codes to a foreign country or that others at the lab had engaged in similar misdeeds. Indeed, many of Lee’s colleagues were horrified to hear of what he had done. When asked whether other scientists illicitly copied or took home secret documents, one Los Alamos weapons designer told me, “What Wen Ho did was like driving 80 miles per hour in a school zone.”

    Los Alamos National Laboratory is far more likely to actually be working with classified documents that if released or stolen would prove to be terribly harmful to the US than, say, what happened to the State Department recently. What Wen Ho did was not like "driving 80 miles per hour in a school zone," rather it was like driving 100mph through a residential neighborhood while dozens of kids were walking across the street as their bus was unloading. It's so reckless and irresponsible that "even if he didn't kill someone," it shows an unacceptable lack of concern for the safety of others and his community.

    I know many slashdotters like to chuckle about overclassification, but consider where he was working. Is it really wrong for the federal government to put its boot firmly up the ass of a scientist who works at one of our two nuclear weapons laboratories when he thinks basic procedures are beneath him?

    • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday November 10, 2011 @08:55AM (#38011194)

      What happened to Wen Ho Lee was the DOE director Richardson, a cabinet level Hispanic, former UN ambassador, former congressman, was widely expected to the the vice presidential running mate. This happened on his watch and the republicans were determined to destroy him for something that was not even his fault (the infractions occured before his time in office). He in turn massively over reacted. The FBI went nuts. Wen Ho Lee was put in solitary confinement and only allowed to have one book at a time. I've no doubt Wen Ho deserved jail time, but even the judge who let him out said he had be abused by the process. But the over reaction continued to play out politically and the lab was the loser.

    • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday November 10, 2011 @11:17AM (#38012520)

      To give people an idea of just how sensitive this type of data is, this is basically what is already known publicly about making a lightweight fusion-boosted warhead that can be put on a rocket:

      The ideal fissile material is Plutonium-239. It should contain less than 10% Pu-240 and ideally less than 2% Pu-240
      This can be made in research reactors, using technology available in public literature.
      The amount used in a simple implosion bomb is 4-6kg
      It can be extracted from spent nuclear fuel by a solvent extraction process using the PUREX process ( which is again described in open litterature )
      A 2-point explosion system can be made by using an air-gap lens. Detailed analysis of how such a lens could be shaped is available in open litterature.
      Boosting the device is best done with an equal mixture of pressurized Deuterium and Tritium. About 5 grams total is needed.
      Deuterium is readily available on the open market, and Tritium can be produced from lithium in a research reactor.
      The plutonium can be stabilized in its delta phase by addition of about 3% gallium.
      To prevent oxidation the plutonium can be gold plated.

      Now, however:
      Optimal yield is achieved when the deuterium-tritium reaction burns close to completion while the fissile material is still in a dense configuration. This means the fission chain reaction ought to start early enough to heat the hydrogen isotopes to ignition temperature quickly, but not too early as that may result in inefficient compression. The exact timing of the initiating neutron pulse is therefore very important, and depends on the precise characteristics of the bomb. Determining the optimal timing is believed very difficult without nuclear testing.

      If the information he copied detailed the dimensions, composition and timing of the fission primary, then such information leaking to the public would essentially allow anybody that acquired weapons grade plutonium and tritium to create a highly compact nuclear warhead, small enough to fit on a rocket or easily hidden in a small space. The very first device to make use of this technology had a weight of about 40 pounds, and a yield similar to that of the Hiroshima bomb.

      • If the information he copied detailed the dimensions, composition and timing of the fission primary, then such information leaking to the public would essentially allow anybody that acquired weapons grade plutonium and tritium to create a highly compact nuclear warhead, small enough to fit on a rocket or easily hidden in a small space.

        Indeed. What few people seem to realize is that while the principles of nuclear weapons are simple indeed... the actual engineering is anything but.

        The real problem i

        • the fact is that you can build a nuclear bomb with 1940s technology. know what else was state of the art in the 1940s? nylon. tube amplifiers. black and white television. color movies.

          the 'gun type weapon' is so simple a child could build it. half the shit on mythbusters is more complicated than a gun-type uranium weapon. refining the uranium is a pain in the ass, but again, it just takes a lot of fucking money, there isn't any secret formula. there is no mystery. its not going back in the bottle. its like

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday November 10, 2011 @09:09AM (#38011282)

    On December 10, 1999, Lee was arrested. Described as an extreme danger to US national security, he was held in solitary confinement for 278 days awaiting his day in court. When he was finally brought to trial, the case against him rapidly fell apart; 58 of the 59 counts against him were dropped, and he was released with time served for one count of mishandling classified information.

    The case did not "fall apart" when it went to trial, because it never went to trial. I'm also struggling to comprehend how the case could have "fallen apart", because they found classified information in his house and his unclassified computer, and what other evidence do you need for charges of mishandling classified information? (note: the case did "fall apart", in that he should have been charged with much more but wasn't, but the 59 charges were legit)

    Here's how espionage cases against people with clearances are always handled : you are charged with whatever crime you are guilty of, then are offered a plea deal for a lesser offense in exchange for two things. First, you must honestly relate everything you leaked, so the damage to national security can be assessed, and then you must promise a newly discovered silence about matters classified. For obvious reasons the vast majority (I can't think of any who haven't in recent history) of the accused take the plea deal and never go to court.

    Except for Wen Ho Lee. He refused to plea down to a lesser charge (in this case a single charge), as most of these people do. So they stuck him in solitary, because without agreeing to #2 he was still a threat to national security. Finally, after 278 days he relented and accepted the plea deal. He got off lucky, because the FBI botched the investigation and he could have been prosecuted for a good bit more -- export violations for one, for discussing nuclear information with Chinese scientists.

    The arrogance charge is right on the money. The relaxed attitude toward the law from people at the lab is astounding. The mere fact that Wen Ho Lee has become something of a martyr is proof.

    • by Raul654 (453029)

      "I'm also struggling to comprehend how the case could have "fallen apart", because they found classified information in his house and his unclassified computer" - (A) The material they found was classified as 'restricted', not 'secret'. Having worked in multiple government laborities, I can tell you that restricted in this sense means confidential but not classified (in the same sense that social security numbers and other personal information are not to be made public) (B) Another LANL physicist, John Ric

  • ...but this doesn't happen in a vacuum.

    To suggest that the 'poor scientists at Los Alamos' have a difficult time being messed-with by the politicians is a touch disingenuous unless one mentions that the facilities have had a spate of data losses, espionage, and a number of other problems that have given the political class a REASON to stick their noses in.

    And while we're at it, I'm going to guess that this exact same cri di couer could have been issued by scientists in the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, 70s, 80s, 90s

  • Hack Job (Score:4, Interesting)

    by anorlunda (311253) on Thursday November 10, 2011 @09:42AM (#38011544) Homepage

    I just read the entire paper. Before reading it I was neutral and largely ignorant of Los Alamos' problems and culture. After reading it I tend to believe that the culture there is indeed one of arrogance and privilege and that the author, Gusterson, is their mouthpiece.

    The paper is not even close to a scientific treatment. It is a series of conclusions, allegations, and characterizations more suited to a letter to the editor (or a Slashdot rant like this one) than a NSF funded study report. He never once describes the scientific culture that is the subject, nor does he analyze it. Nor does he analyze the management. He simply hurls characterizations and insults at it. The paper reads like a list of grievances brought forward by a shop steward.

    To use Gusterson's words against him. He says, "Recent condenmations of Los Alamos have been based on remarkably thin cartoonish descriptions of its culture." But his paper does exactly that, it seems to be based on remarkably thin cartoonish descriptions of the management.

    I'm still ignorant of the actual culture at Los Alamos. However, if there was a calcified culture of arrogance and privilege, and that culture sent forth someone to present their views, I would expect it to sound exactly like Gustafson's paper. If that paper were the only evidence, I would say "Fire them all."

    • by Frangible (881728)
      Then try reading some of the papers he cites instead of concluding "HERP DERP ARROGANT SCIENTISTS". Because that's a little... arrogant.
    • by Raul654 (453029)

      "He never once describes the scientific culture that is the subject" - actually, he does, by saying several times that such a separate culture does not exist: "Pete Nanos ran his lab into the ground by insisting on the existence of a distinctive culture that was largely an artifact of his own imagination... Second, the organizational dysfunction at Los Alamos has been misdiagnosed as a problem of culture; it is more likely a problem of structure."

    • Re:Hack Job (Score:4, Informative)

      by DougDot (966387) <dougr@parrot-farm.net> on Thursday November 10, 2011 @12:28PM (#38013404) Homepage

      Speaking as the author/creator/owner/maintainer of the original LANL, The Real Story blog, http://parrot-farm.net/lanl-the-real-story/ [parrot-farm.net] [parrot-farm.net], and as a person who spent 20 years on staff at LANL, I can tell you that Hugh Gusterson's paper, if anything, understates the levels of incompetence, arrogance, and these days under its new corporate ownership, the *greed* demonstrated by the management of Los Alamos National Laboratory. The place had become nearly completely dysfunctional during the Nanos period, and is now simply treading water. The primary goal and business plan these days is to ensure that the annual award fee is received in it's entirety. Science has taken a back seat to making money for the LLC that now owns the contract for running the place.

      --Doug Roberts LANL, Retired 2005

  • by Frangible (881728) on Thursday November 10, 2011 @10:10AM (#38011782)
    Ironic, isn't it? It wasn't too long ago that it was the left that was the greatest political threat to Los Alamos and LLNL.

    But today, as the article points out, it is the right, mostly starting with the Bush Administration. I'm no fan of people scapegoating George W. Bush for all of the ills of the nation, but here is a case where his administration had a profoundly negative effect upon national security. The same kind of paranoid mismanagement on a gross scale that gives you TSA cavity searches every time you get on a plane is gutting the intellectual and scientific capabilities of these institutions.

    It is a further irony that we criticize fundamentalist Muslim nations for impeding the progress of science and technology, but we are allowing this to happen in our own backyard. We owe much of our technology today-- the internet, integrated circuits, a national highway system, GPS, etc to nuclear defense research and spending.

    We are told we cannot compete with developing nations for manufacturing, and must do so through science and innovation. But when scientific research and scientists are undermined, then what future do we have?

    The failed policies of the Bush administration and Bechtel's seizure of power must be reversed. Nuclear science should be returned to the capable hands of nuclear scientists, not a for-profit corporation that has proven hostile to science and scientists all in the name of short-term profit. Bechtel has acted against the national security interests of the US and is not fit to hold a government contract. The truth is that government-funded science does produce tremendously useful results, and nowhere has that been more apparent than in nuclear defense research. We cannot afford to lose that.
  • Speaking as the author/creator/owner/maintainer of the original LANL, The Real Story blog, http://parrot-farm.net/lanl-the-real-story/ [parrot-farm.net], and as a person who spent 20 years on staff at LANL, I can tell you that Hugh Gusterson's paper, if anything, understates the levels of incompetence, arrogance, and these days under its new corporate ownership, the *greed* demonstrated by the management of Los Alamos National Laboratory. The place had become nearly completely dysfunctional during the Nanos period, and is n

  • The DoE was the third department that Perry couldn't recall [youtu.be].

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