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Nuke Labs Security Concerns Rise

A classified floppy disk reported missing from a government nuclear weapons lab was found, but officials were tight-lipped about details surrounding the incident.

The disk was listed as missing during a June 30 inventory at Sandia National Laboratories. The lab said the floppy disk came from a military organization.

"The disk was always under the control of individuals authorized to possess it," said Ron Detry, Sandia's vice president of integrated security and chief security officer, on Friday.

Detry cited a procedural error in the disk's transfer between lab organizations, but lab officials declined to comment on where the disk was found or any other details.

"We are relieved the disk has been found. But in my mind, the nature of the near miss of this recent incident is far too close for comfort," Sandia Director C. Paul Robinson said. "We must find better ways and procedures for ensuring the protection of such material."

Sandia officials notified the Energy Department and the National Nuclear Security Administration about the disk.

Robinson said he has asked Detry to lead a task force to improve the management of classified electronic information and removable media.

The incident at Sandia came on the heels of another security breach at Los Alamos National Laboratory, where two items identified only as removable data storage devices with classified information turned up missing during a special inventory.

Los Alamos Lab director Pete Nanos, tired of security lapses at the northern New Mexico facility, has brought nearly all work there to a standstill and is calling scofflaw "cowboys" out for a final showdown.

He took the unprecedented step Friday of broadening a stand-down of classified work to include virtually all lab activities.

"We are doing this as part of an effort to ensure this laboratory operates safely and meets our national security obligations," Nanos said in a memo to all employees.

He said there will be exceptions to his order, so that critical missions and essential national security functions continue unabated.

Nanos made the announcement a day after the University of California, which manages the lab for the Department of Energy, ordered him to halt classified work at the lab. The action followed the security lapse last week in which two electronic data storage devices turned up missing.

Nanos blamed "cowboys" who are disobeying rules on the handling of sensitive material and said: "I don't care how many people I have to fire to make it stop."

"If you think the rules are silly, if you think compliance is a joke, please resign now and save me the trouble," he said.

Nanos told employees that the lab-wide stand-down isn't due to a lack of confidence in them, but rather an opportunity to reflect on their responsibilities and make sure they can do their jobs safely and securely.

"People who believe their dedication to science or to our mission supersedes our commitments to safety, security and environmental compliance put us all at risk," Nanos said. "This erroneous belief puts our personal safety on the job, our nation's security which depends on protecting classified information, and the institution to which we've dedicated our careers at risk."

While lab spokesman Kevin Roark acknowledged Friday's decision was extreme, he said: "We know here at the lab that it's the right thing to do."

In addition to the security issues, a graduate student at the lab was involved in an accident Wednesday involving a laser. The woman suffered an eye injury when light from the laser, which she thought was off, entered her eye, Roark told the Albuquerque Journal. The lab planned to send the woman to Maryland for treatment.

The stand-down is open ended, with some lab departments expected to resume work sooner than others. Nanos said officials will review every department's activities and recommend work resume only when all compliance issues have been addressed.

With classified work at a standstill Friday at the birthplace of the atomic bomb, some observers wondered whether the latest security shake-up at Los Alamos is the fatal blow for its embattled manager.

Scientists spent much of the day inventorying the lab's stock of electronic data storage devices after two turned up missing last week.

Lab and Energy Department officials said little about what's missing - the DOE calls them computer disks - and how they may have disappeared.

Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham ordered two of his top people to personally oversee the lab inquiry.

"If this doesn't knock the University of California out of its contract, then nothing will," said Steven Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists' project on government secrecy.

He said UC's ability to run the lab "is in question as never before."

UC officials haven't said whether they'll compete for the contract, which expires next year, although regents have told staff to prepare as though they will.

Abraham opted for the first-ever contract competition last year after a management and purchasing scandal at Los Alamos cost top managers their jobs and prompted an overhaul of business practices.

Over the last year, employees also couldn't find a recordable data storage device, nine floppy disks and a large-capacity storage disk containing classified information. Lab officials believe the material was destroyed.

"These repeated incidences certainly do not help the University of California as the Los Alamos contract competition moves forward," said Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., a longtime UC supporter.

Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., called the school's response to the latest incident a crucial test.

"When it comes time to award the future management contract for LANL, DOE will have to consider how effectively UC responded to this incident," he said.

Adding to UC speculation, Aftergood said, is the fact so little is known about the latest security lapse. He said the lab seems much more concerned this time.

Robert Foley, UC's vice president of laboratory management, said he believes scientists have been reluctant to blow the whistle on colleagues who don't follow the rules.

Changing managers may not be "sufficient to bring about a culture change," Aftergood said.

Deputy Energy Secretary Kyle McSlarrow and National Nuclear Security Administration Linton Brooks are overseeing the inquiry. Brooks will tour the lab Sunday, and McSlarrow will join him Monday.

Reps. Joe Barton, R-Texas, and Diana DeGette, D-Colo., members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, also arrive Monday.

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