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"Forget the Rest" blog



Chronology of major incidents marking Los Alamos National Laboratory’s management history

Posted: Saturday, January 2, 2016 10:00 pm | Updated: 10:56 pm, Sat Jan 2, 2016.

The New Mexican

Jan. 1, 1943: A secret national laboratory is set up in Los Alamos to design a nuclear bomb during World War II. The University of California is named the official lab manager and is paid $5 million for a one-year contract. The U.S. Department of Energy oversees the lab’s operations. J. Robert Oppenheimer is the lab’s director.

1945: An atomic bomb is tested at the Trinity Site in Southern New Mexico on July 16, ushering in the nuclear age.

Norris Bradbury replaces Oppenheimer as director.

1970: Harold Agnew becomes lab director.

1979: Donald M. Kerr becomes lab director.

October 1982: Human error and erroneous labeling caused 14 lab employees to be exposed to high levels of plutonium, one of them internally. A federal report recommends “improved training” and procedures.

1986: Plutonium expert Siegfried “Sig” Hecker is named lab director.

1988: A new federal law gives the Department of Energy more leverage over lab contractors. The University of California at Los Alamos National Laboratory is exempted from the law.

1989: Len Trimmer, a senior-level lab technician, tells lab management about rusting, leaking nuclear waste drums and other problems at Area G, where LANL stores nuclear waste. Trimmer says he’s harassed by lab management, goes on medical leave and files a whistleblower lawsuit against the lab four years later. The lab denies harassment.

1991: The Department of Energy’s Complex-wide Tiger Team audits LANL and finds the lab is failing to properly monitor radioactive emissions into the air. “Management accountability and oversight are lacking,” the team finds. Another federal report finds the lab hasn’t tallied up all the hazardous materials on site and that the “Energy Department has neither the information nor the qualified staff to clean up nuclear weapons complex facilities.”

The New Mexican culminates a three-month investigation with a six-day series called “Fouling the Nest” that looks at contamination from more than 1,800 hazardous waste dump sites around Los Alamos from lab activities. Cost to clean up: an estimated $2 billion.

The newspaper’s publisher, Robert McKinney, defends the lab, fires a reporter and the managing editor, and allows LANL to publish a special supplement defending itself.

The Cold War ends, leading to the beginning of major mission changes for the lab.

1992: Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety sues the lab over federal air quality violations and eventually wins.

April 1994: Safety violations close the lab’s plutonium facility at Technical Area 55.

1995: More than 256 lab employees are laid off, nearly half of them Hispanic. Lab workers decry the layoffs, saying it violates University of California personnel policies and is racist. Employees form a new group, Citizens of LANL for Employee Rights. Chris Mechels is one of them. State lawmakers call for an investigation.

January 1996: Workman Efren Martinez is electrocuted while performing excavation work at a technical area. Martinez, left in a coma for several years, dies from his injuries in 2009. His family later settles a lawsuit with the Department of Energy for $13 million, and the department cites the lab for substandard electrical safety measures.

A later explosion occurs at LANL’s Chemical and Metallurgy Research facility, with no injuries reported.

1997: Congress appropriates $25 million to set up the LANL Foundation. The University of California and LANL give $3 million a year to the foundation, which provides grants to Northern New Mexico communities. Physicist John C. Browne replaces Hecker as lab director.

1998: The Department of Energy cites the University of California for ongoing safety problems and “numerous deficiencies.” The lab settles a lawsuit filed by 102 laid-off employees.

March 1999: A veteran 20-year Los Alamos scientist, Wen Ho Lee, is fired and then arrested months later on 59 charges that he illegally copied classified nuclear weapons files. He is suspected of sharing the documents with China but is never charged with espionage. Lee’s supporters say he was unfairly singled out because he is ethnic Chinese. The government later drops all but one charge against him.

More than two dozen other security violations are reported by the lab after Lee is fired. The lab stops publicly reporting computer security violations.

March 2000: The National Nuclear Security Administration, a branch of the Department of Energy, is opened to oversee maintenance of nuclear weapons stockpile and nuclear nonproliferation programs.

May 2000: The Cerro Grande Fire burns close to lab property, prompting state officials to push the lab to get thousands of containers of legacy hazardous waste off the Hill.

June 2000: Six top lab managers are placed on paid leave after two computer hard drives with classified nuclear information are reported missing. One of those placed on leave is Stephen Younger, who investigated Wen Ho Lee. The hard drives are later found stashed behind a copy machine. Lab managers are chastised by Congress for taking three weeks to tell the Department of Energy about the missing discs. Bill Richardson is secretary of the department.

Jan. 1, 2001: The LANL management contract is revised in response to the computer security problems. Richardson, on his last day as energy secretary under President Bill Clinton’s outgoing administration, says the University of California should retain the contract until 2005. One critic calls it “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.”

The revised contract gives the Department of Energy the authority to remove any lab employee from work funded by the agency. President George W. Bush appoints Spencer Abraham as his energy secretary.

Richardson becomes governor of New Mexico.

August 2002: LANL hires Kellogg, Brown and Root, a subsidiary of Vice President Dick Cheney’s former company Halliburton, under a $145 million, five-year lab maintenance contract to handle waste removal, facility repairs, utility operations and custodial services.

November 2002: The Department of Energy’s Office of Inspector General investigates allegations by a whistleblower that lab management turned a blind eye to $3 million in lab equipment that went missing from 1999 to 2001. The inspector general also investigates allegations of purchase-card fraud.

March 2003: U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici and Gov. Richardson continue to publicly support the University of California as the lab’s manager. Richardson says the university has taken “unprecedented, dramatic action” to “change the culture of the lab.” He urges against severing the lab’s ties to the university. Former lab director Hecker tells a congressional committee that the lab’s “system of governance is broken,” largely because there is no trust between the University of California and the feds.

Browne resigns and Pete Nanos is hired as interim director. He tells reporters he intends to “drain the swamp.”

April 2003: Nanos removes more than a dozen lab managers from their positions. Energy Secretary Abraham announces the LANL contract will go up for a competitive bid for the first time in the lab’s 60-year history. UC’s contract ends Sept. 30, 2005. Some 266 scientists ask to retire. A senior Energy Department official acknowledges “university failures, our failures and cultural failures as the three root causes” for problems at the lab.

2004: More than a dozen companies and universities bid on the contract, among them top-contender University of Texas and Lockheed Martin. Gov. Richardson urges the University of California to bid as well. Sens. Pete Dominici and Jeff Bingaman also support UC retaining the contract.

Two computer discs with classified information are reported missing, and two scientists are fired. Director Nanos shuts down the lab for seven months, citing safety and security violations. Investigators find out the two discs never existed and were the result of an accounting error. One scientist is cleared by an arbitrator; the other dies before he is exonerated.

2005: Robert Kuckuck becomes lab director.

June 1, 2006: The LANL contract is awarded to Los Alamos National Security, a consortium that includes the University of California, Bechtel Corp., BWX Technologies and Washington Group International (now AECOM). Michael R. Anastasio is named lab director.

October 2006: Classified materials are found at the home of a contract employee during a drug raid. An employee takes home a computer containing hundreds of pages of classified documents; she is arrested.

2007: The lab produces a plutonium pit for a nuclear bomb core, the first since the 1989 closure of the Rocky Mountain Flats lab in Colorado. A plutonium accident contaminates a high-security nuclear area.

Linton Brooks, head of the National Nuclear Security Administration, is told to resign by Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman, in part over security breaches at LANL.

2008: A federal performance review for 2007 gives LANS excellent marks in weapons program and threat assurance, but it fails the contractor on leadership, management, environment and safety. LANS loses $15 million in performance fees.

2009: A scientist takes home a computer containing classified material, which is later stolen out of his house.

2011: The Las Conchas Fire burns thousands of acres around the lab. Gov. Susana Martinez urges the lab to move up its deadline to get remaining hazardous waste containers down to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad.

Workers are exposed to arsenic. The lab is fined. Nuclear physicist Charles F. McMillan replaces Anastasio as lab director.

2012: A worker is exposed to beryllium. The lab is fined. In addition, the Neutron Science Center and nine homes off lab property are contaminated after a worker opens a container of a highly dispersible radioactive powder, according to accident reports.

2013: A waste container at the lab is packaged with a volatile mix of nitrate salts and organic kitty litter and is shipped to WIPP.

Feb. 14, 2014: The container ruptures in the underground WIPP facility, leaking radiation. Several workers are exposed, although levels are not considered a health hazard. WIPP is closed indefinitely.

March-December 2014: Federal investigators issue scathing reports finding multiple problems with how waste is handled at the lab. One report finds workers who tried to alert supervisors to problems with waste containers were ignored.

December 2014: Eight workers are exposed to plutonium while working on a glovebox in the lab’s PF-4 facility. Exposure is not serious, according to the lab.

March 2015: A Los Alamos National Laboratory electrical worker is knocked off a ladder after accidentally touching a live wire in a ceiling at a radiological lab building.

May 2015: Nine workers are injured, one severely, by an electrical arc at a lab substation.

December 2015: The Department of Energy tells Congress it is putting the LANL contract back up for bid.

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