Government Denies $14M Costs for Los Alamos Security Shutdown

Top official says seven-month suspension of work over lost disks was "reasonable"


WASHINGTON -- The government is refusing to pay $14 million of the costs associated with last year's security-related shutdown at Los Alamos National Laboratory, although a top official says most of the expenses were reasonable and praised the lab's efficiency.

The total cost of the seven-month suspension of work at the New Mexico lab - which followed reports that two classified computer disks had disappeared - remains unclear. The lab puts the figure at $119 million, while the Energy Department's National Nuclear Security Administration estimates up to $367 million.

The "stand-down" at Los Alamos lasted from July 2004 into February 2005, though many workers resumed normal duties after the first month. An investigation concluded that the disks reported missing had never existed.

The length of the stand-down was reasonable and "the vast majority" of the costs should be reimbursed, Jerry Paul, NNSA's principal deputy administrator, said Thursday in written testimony to the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on investigations.

"In fact, I believe that the duration was not only reasonable, but likely noteworthy for its efficiency," Paul said.

Nonetheless, he said, NNSA has decided to refuse payment to the lab's manager, the University of California, of $6.3 million in subcontractor claims and other incremental costs, as well as $8 million in salary costs for lab employees during the first two days of the stand-down.

The agency says subcontractor costs weren't adequately explained and the salary costs weren't allowable.

University of California spokesman Chris Harrington said the university is providing additional documentation to bolster its argument for reimbursement.

Lawmakers from both parties renewed their criticism Thursday of what they called a "culture of noncompliance" at the lab. Several read from a blog started by a computer scientist at the lab that went online in January and has become a forum for discontented employees.

"I think it goes deep into the institutional ethos at Los Alamos and I'm not sure what we do about it and I'm not sure any of you do, either," Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., told a panel of government officials.

Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Michigan, went so far as to suggest closing the lab.

"We have a lab here that is a constant problem," he said. "Why do we need this one? Is there any really unique science that can only be done there? Why do we need Los Alamos?"

Lab supporters quickly rejected Stupak's proposal as exorbitantly expensive and impractical.

Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., who sits on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said Thursday that Los Alamos has filled a significant role in national security since its creation as a top-secret World War II project to develop the atomic bomb.

"Anyone who would question the lab's importance clearly does not have an understanding of all that this lab has done and continues to do for the country," Bingaman said.