Jun 1, 2007

LANL: Archive policies haven't changed

ROGER SNODGRASS Monitor Assistant Editor

Harvard University graduate student Alex Wellerstein is working on a dissertation on nuclear secrecy, 1939-2005. If he extends his field of study by two years to 2007, he could include some of his own recent experiences.

Earlier this month Wellerstein's encounters with Los Alamos National Laboratory's archives were featured in Secrecy News, a blog and alert service sponsored by the Federation of American Scientists that focuses on government secrecy.

The problem, from Wellerstein's perspective, was that the laboratory had changed its procedures in a way that would make it hard for a researcher to obtain important historical materials.

A series of e-mails among University of California officials about the matter, obtained by the Monitor, suggest that they were concerned as well, at least by appearances.

In looking back over events since then, laboratory spokesperson Kevin Roark said the policy had not changed and is not changed now, but there was a brief period when the laboratory had to figure out what it meant to the archives that the laboratory was no longer governed by the California Public Records Act, because it was no longer managed exclusively by UC, although the university remains one of the principal partners in the managing consortium.

"In the final analysis, there is nothing different about the way we handled requests for information in May 2006 that is different than May 2007," Roark said.

Wellerstein said he thought he had assurances that he could get some help from LANL officials that would make it easier to find historical information for his project.

The archives were being moved at the time, so there was some delay.

"I didn't hear back for awhile, but I didn't expect to hear," Wellerstein said. "My job is to get things in the works out there, so that in a year or so they become ripe."

One aspect of his research already written and accepted for publication is about "patenting the bomb," the paradoxical process by which the government justified using the federal patent program to protect top-secret nuclear weapons technology coming out of the Manhattan Project during World War II.

Wellerstein was also working with Peter Galison on a documentary about government secrecy with filmmaker Robb Moss. Galison is a MacArthur Fellow and prominent professor of the history of science and physics at Harvard.

Then, Wellerstein said, "Suddenly out of the blue I got an e-mail from the information practices officer that was very legalistic and hard to divine what the content was meant to be."

The gist, he said, was that the former information release policies (under the California law) were no longer in effect and there were no new policies to replace them, so that his requests would have to be submitted under the federal Freedom of Information Act.

Wellerstein discussed the situation with his colleagues, including Priscilla McMillan, author of the book "The Ruin of J. Robert Oppenheimer," published in 2005. McMillan is also a former Council Member of the Federation of American Scientists, which subsequently published the first of two notices about the matter.

Wellerstein said he had also communicated with National Coalition for History, a Washington, D.C. based non-profit and advocate for history related issues. NCH published an item on their website on May 7.

The Chronicle of Higher Education, the journal of the Council for Higher Education also made calls to lab and UC officials in Washington during a brief flap that ensued.

Since then, Wellerstein said he has filed four FOIAs of differing scopes, covering different kinds of information he is looking for.

He has also sought additional clarification from the laboratory on questions that he still has.

In an interview Wednesday, Roark answered two of the questions.

Was it possible to obtain unclassified or previously unclassified documents held in the archives?

"Yes," Roark said. There is an informal process at the archives that they have practiced for years, where they do a quick review through security and classification of items that are clearly marked for public release. And if there are no mitigating circumstances, they go ahead and provide that."

Secondly, are archivists able to look for relevant material and make them available to researchers, and are they able to help guide researchers through the FOIA process?

Roark said, "To the degree they can, yes, they are available to help." He said there may be time constraints and many researchers do not fully appreciate the scope of the holdings.

"There are millions of documents in our archives and it is not designed to be a lending library," Roark said.

A final question was harder to answer: Can researchers get information in regards to the general holdings of the Los Alamos archives without the filing of a FOIA request?

"I don't know that I can answer that," Roark said. "Without some level of specificity, it makes it difficult. You kind of need to know what you're looking for."

In conclusion, Roark said, "What the archive did in the past it will do in the future."


Anonymous said...

The policy perhaps hasn't changed, but the integrity of the institution has. Robert Oppenheimer had a conscience, as did many of his colleagues in leadership at the time. Today's Lab leaders are a farce to say the least, as is much of the workforce. The sad truth is the greatness that was once Los Alamos is now virtually dead and buried. Policies are only as good as the people who enforce them.

Anonymous said...

Well and there are two sets of rules: one for the "Lab leaders" (uses term loosely) and the rest of the work force. This has been the case for the ADCLES and the rest of Chem, Bio, and EES division personnel.

Anonymous said...

It's pretty obvious in my division (the oldest one at LANL), that our leaders are nothing but liars. They managed to destroy our computer system administration team, comprised of several knowledgeable contractors. For a number of years, they asked these folks to do more and more work, these folks supported us loyally and never turned down a request, and yet suddenly their contract was out of money (which was a lie), LANL said no more contracts with the company (another lie), they were performing staff augmentation work (because the division ASKED them too), and now we are stuck with an incompetent group lead by a major incompetent who is rude to everyone except those above him. Our work has suffered, and many are considering leaving because they can't get their work done.

In the meantime, another division reaps the benefit of the knowledgeable contractors. LANL management lies to feather its own nest and at the expense of productive employees, no matter if they are LANS employees or contractors.

Anonymous said...

The current management can do what it wants without any accountability. Mike should be holding PADs, ADs, and DLs accountable but he is looking the other way. One glaring example that should land an AD in the unemployment line: using overhead or institutional dollars to give seminars on their own research program (on numerous occasions) - even though ADs are not supposed to be using their management position/title for their own self-gain.

Anonymous said...

Man, 10:07 - you really hate Mary, don't you.

BTW, what is with the psychopathic editorial regarding access to information in the Monitor today?

Eric said...

Solutions to some of these problems are discussed on the blog WorkingatLANL.

Anonymous said...

There does not seem to be anything about waste, fraud, and abuse of power at the blog WorkingatLANL.

Anonymous said...

1:26 PM - I just read the post from 10:07 and did not see Mary's name mentioned. Do you know some specifics about the AD you reference that you would like to share with the rest of us?

Anonymous said...

Mary had a little lamb. That's all I know.

Anonymous said...

1:26 here,

No evidence or anything.

There have been a bunch of posts complaining about Mary, her proteges, and her R&D. I assumed that 10:07 was posting another installment in the Crimes-of-Mary story.

It is annoying, but people in power help their buddies. Frustrating, yes. Uncommon, no.

Anonymous said...

Google "Mary Neu seminar."

Anonymous said...

The first hit was a seminar at UC-Irvine that looks like an excellent advertisment for nuclear chemistry at LANL. What is the problem?

Anonymous said...

6/3/07 5:44 PM - Anonymous said...
"Mary had a little lamb. That's all I know."

Our Mary ate that little lamb well done with mint jelly ... That's all I know.

Anonymous said...

7:45, it's an excellent advertisement for Mary's own chemistry research. The AAAS seminar has streamining video where you clearly see her title slide lists her as first author.

Anonymous said...

So a seminar presenter was first author?

Is this uncommon?

And a LANL manager appears competent. Is this uncommon?


Anonymous said...

6/5/07 7:57 AM - I think the point that 6:51 and 7:15 are trying to make here is that Mary is using her position inappropriately - like using her title to give seminars on her own research, using our overhead funds to pay for her travel to promote her own research, and let's not forget using her position to inappropriately secure LDRD funds for her former PDs (which she converted to TSMs) to continue her research program so that she can get her name on papers. I think this is crossing the line a bit. Especially when other new hires in C-Div have requested LDRD funds and are told there is no money and the PADSTE says we are broke. How is this fair or proper?

Anonymous said...

7:57 here.

My point is that this behavior is very common in many organizations, and probably is very common in chemistry as well. Big shots hire their friends. If those friends are reasonably qualified, then it is generally considered OK.

I, for example, look favorably on job applicants from my college or university. I bet you do as well. I bet Mary does as well.

So LDRD is somewhat political. This is news?

Also, I have worked in groups/divisions run by respected scientists and non-respected scientists. The respected scientists always do what Mary is accused of doing. TSM's in organizations run by non-respected scientists always complained about the lack of stature of their leaders.

Anonymous said...

So, inappropriate / unethical / illegal ... oh, I mean "political" is now acceptable behavior? Now the criminals are siezing power and the kiss-butts are ... well sucking up to the ADs. Why not, it is not like Terry is doing anything or cares. In fact, he just gave Mary's former PD 2 years of LDRD funding to help him start up just to keep her happy and allow her to keep getting her name on papers. Signs of a respected scientist - you betcha - maybe Terry should go on as a co-author as well... What is to become of our future as the rampant corruption manifests itself?

Anonymous said...

6/5/07 3:53 PM said, "Big shots hire their friends. If those friends are reasonably qualified, then it is generally considered OK."

Yeah, well Mary's former PD was hardly a star. Not a Director's or Oppie PD. Never fully characterizes anything he makes, etc.

6/5/07 3:53 PM also said, "I, for example, look favorably on job applicants from my college or university. I bet you do as well. I bet Mary does as well."

Well, here is another tidbit - Mary did not go to Irvine. So your point here means nothing.

Anonymous said...

I asked around and heard that Al "Saddleberger" (however you spell it) used to take care of his chemist friends when he headed LDRD.

From your tone, it sounds like you were on some gravy train that changed with the management.

Or is your beef really that this Irvine guy "never fully characterizes anything he makes." Really???

Anonymous said...

To 8:37 PM - Al Sattleberger never was in charge of LDRD, but he would have hired me. I heard he did a lot of great things for chemistry. From your tone, you must be a bitter TSM and I don't know what gravey train you are talking about - all I am seeing is lots of non-fellowship PDs being converted just because of who they work for and if you don't work for the "right person" you don't get converted or get LDRD support to start off.

Anonymous said...

For what it's worth, the anti-Mary poster is pretty clearly the chemist TSM who caused the aqua regia incident several years ago.

This TSM was on a real "gravy train," supported by powerful patrons, and was placed on LDRD committees.

The world turns. Her patrons are out of power and others are in power.

She is a notorious whiner.

Anonymous said...

I thought she got fired.

Anonymous said...

The PD left, but the TSM stayed.

Anonymous said...

Numerous people wished it was the other way around. I asked around and heard the wrong one stayed - the PD was highly distinguished and one that the Lab wanted to desperately keep.

Anonymous said...

ROTFL! You obviously never saw the "distinguished" PD give a talk. Deer in the headlights, TSM had to bail her out on even the simplest of questions. Not really surprising, she was handed her PhD two years early to get her out of town.

Anonymous said...

Oh, and a notorious liar too. Serious lung injury? Didn't stop her from spending the next winter skiing the double black diamonds at Taos.

Anonymous said...

The PD was no great shakes. Not sure how that absolves the TSM from being whiny and difficult and an all-around trouble-maker?

Anonymous said...

Nuclear Secrets Revealed on 75th Anniversary of Neutron Discovery
2007-06-10 16:17:02

Instructions on how to make plutonium and build a nuclear reactor have been revealed in sealed, World War II research papers which were opened at the Royal Society on Thursday 31 May 2007 to coincide with the 75th anniversary of the neutron discovery.

Between 1940 and 1941 James Chadwick sent five sealed envelopes to the Royal Society for safe keeping as he felt their contents detailing experiments on nuclear fission were too sensitive to publish. The sealed envelopes contained the work of two French scientists, Hans Von Halban and Lew Kowarski who worked at the Cavendish laboratory in Cambridge.

Chadwick's discovery of the neutron confirmed in his 1932 paper The Existence of a Neutron' published in Proceedings of the Royal Society A kickstarted the field of nuclear physics.

Keith Moore, Head of Library and Archives at the Royal Society, said "The papers have only recently been discovered, as part of our on-going programme to catalogue the Society's archives. The documents have been sealed for so long it only seemed right to wait for an occasion to open them. The anniversary of Chadwick's discovery which made the research outlined in these papers possible seemed fitting."

Dr Brian Cox, particle physicist and Royal Society research fellow working at CERN, said: "These papers describe what was cutting edge science at the time. The sheer amount of knowledge that these papers contain amazes me only eight years after Chadwick discovered that a neutron even existed, these scientists are already looking at how to use neutrons to bring about nuclear fission and energy.

"I can see why these papers were locked away during the war they contain details that could be used to build a nuclear reactor."

The research papers demonstrate the rapid progress being made in the field at the time, and the huge potential of nuclear fission for power generation. However the knowledge that the huge energy releases from nuclear fission could also be used irresponsibly, prompted Chadwick to emphasise in his letters which accompanied the sealed documents that it was "inadvisable to publish at the present time".

Keith Moore added: "Research to understand nuclear fission was an international endeavour. These papers would, under normal circumstances, have been published in a scientific journal to share new knowledge. However, the outbreak of war marked the end of nuclear science being a collective investigation and new developments rapidly became sensitive information."

One paper, "Technological aspects of nuclear chain reactions used as a source of power" dated October 1941, describes the various components required to make a nuclear reactor or boiler' as it is referred to in the typewritten text. The paper describes the process of making plutonium from uranium as a means to generate "new nuclei" which are required to initiate and maintain nuclear fission. The paper also documents various experiments using iron, aluminium, sulphur, graphite and heavy water as a means to stabilise nuclear chain reactions to generate constant energy rather than mass explosions.

In their papers, Halbarn and Kowarski also hypothesize that "the future nuclear industry may rely on uranium" a theory that has since been proved correct with uranium being used in the majority of today's commercial nuclear power stations.

Brain Cox added: "These papers are a truly significant part of nuclear history. They provide a fascinating insight into the inquisitive nature of scientists working in a field moving so rapidly it was almost outpacing them. It is fascinating to read their views on what might come of their research and how accurate some of their predictions have been.