Los Alamos Shutdown Costly

March 21, 2005
Cost could have cost upwards of $367 million in lost time, effort

WASHINGTON (AP) - Disruptions caused by last year's security flap at the Los Alamos weapons laboratory may have cost as much as $367 million because activities were shifted away from the lab's normal work, members of Congress were told.

Lab officials virtually shut down the facility last July after reports that two classified computer disks had disappeared. An investigation later determined they never existed. Some of the normal activities did not resume until last month.

The laboratory also disclosed Friday that the mystery about the disks might have been resolved quickly last summer if two employees had not "falsified" an inventory sheet showing the disks existed.

Los Alamos Lab Director Peter Nanos said the inventory sheet was signed though no inventory had been taken. The two individuals were fired, but when pressed at a House hearing about whether they should be criminally prosecuted, Nanos said that was not for him to decide.

During the so-called "stand-down" at the lab in New Mexico thousands of employees were told to stop their normal work and join the search for the disks, undergo security training and undertake other safety and security related activities. Many of the workers returned to their normal duties after a month.

Linton Brooks, the Energy Department's undersecretary for nuclear security, told the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on investigations Friday that the $367 million figure "represents an upper limit" estimate of how much the security-related suspension may have cost the lab in lost or delayed activities.

The laboratory disagrees, putting the figure at $119 million. The DOE number includes tens of millions of dollars in indirect costs that should not be attributed specifically to the work stoppage, according to Nanos.

Whatever the figure, "the costs are significant," said Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., the chairman of the investigations subcommittee.

Several lawmakers questioned why the University of California, which manages the Los Alamos lab, shouldn't be charged for some of the costs since, they say, the work stoppage resulted from security failures related to poor management.

"The university was hired to do the job and they didn't do it," said Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore. He said taking the university off the hook was "outrageous."

But Brooks told the panel that in all likelihood the government would absorb the costs because activities related to the work suspension were covered by DOE's contract with the university.

Nanos strongly defended the decision to suspend laboratory operations as "absolutely the right thing to do" and said the cost should not be viewed as lost money. During the standown more than 3,000 issues were found that raised safety or security concerns.

Nanos said the re-directed dollars were an investment in the lab because the funds were refocused toward safety, security and compliance activities.

However, if the government were to determine the spending was not covered under its contract, the university would lose tens of millions of dollars it had expected to receive from the government under its contract.

Earlier this year, the Energy Department penalized the university $5.8 million because of the debacle surrounding the allegedly lost computer disks and other security and safety concerns at Los Alamos.