By ANDY LENDERMAN | The New Mexican
June 25, 2007
Security concerns arise as lab braces for Senate funding plans
More security concerns at Los Alamos National Laboratory surfaced Monday, the day before a Senate subcommittee was scheduled to release its highly anticipated spending bill for the lab.
A lab scientist traveled to Ireland late last month for a vacation, and his lab-issued laptop computer was stolen out of his hotel room, federal officials confirmed. But there wasn’t anything classified on it, officials said.
“We really don’t view this as a security breach,” Julianne Smith of the National Nuclear Security Administration said. “It’s a violation of lab policy; that’s it. No classified documents were on the computer, and nothing relating to the weapons program or anything sensitive ... that the lab or NNSA deals with.”
In a separate matter Monday, Newsweek magazine quoted an anonymous source who said another scientist sent a classified e-mail over an unsecured network.
“That reported incident is under review ... and it would be inappropriate to comment until we have all the facts,” Smith said.
Lab spokesman Kevin Roark took issue with the Newsweek report.
“This recent tendency to hold this laboratory accountable for its employees to be anything less than perfect is unrealistic,” Roark said. The lab takes security seriously and has made “great improvements” in the last six months, he said.
U.S. Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., said in a statement he “was made aware of these incidents and once again I expressed my concerns over these continuing lapses. The actions of these individuals unfortunately detract from the tremendously important work done at the lab every day.”
Earlier this month, a Michigan congressman reported that top lab managers sent classified information involving nuclear material by unsecured e-mail. Federal officials are expected to meet with Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., on the matter.
Meanwhile, a North Dakota senator is scheduled to release a document of great importance to New Mexico today, outlining how much federal money the Senate wants to give the lab in the 2008 fiscal year.
The House Appropriations Committee has already suggested as much as $400 million in cuts to Los Alamos and Sandia National Laboratories compared to the 2007 fiscal year, the office of U.S. Rep. Tom Udall, D-N.M., reports. The overall budget at Los Alamos is about $2.1 billion.
But the Senate usually puts more money into the bill, which pays for the U.S. Department of Energy and other projects, before haggling with the House over the final amount.
“My prediction, without giving specifics, is we’re going to get some real relief in this bill,” U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., said in a Monday news conference.
U.S. Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., chairs the Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development and has visited New Mexico with Domenici. Bingaman has also met with Dorgan.
Dorgan’s subcommittee is scheduled to vote on the bill today, Domenici told radio reporters Monday. “I don’t believe we can possibly cut Los Alamos in the method, manner suggested by the U.S. House,” Domenici said. Those cuts would ruin the lab, he said.
The House version of the appropriations bill zeroed out money for the Reliable Replacement Warhead program; eliminated a $95.5 million request to upgrade a nuclear chemistry building and cut about half the lab’s plutonium pit manufacturing budget request for the 2008 fiscal year. Pits are the triggers for nuclear warheads. Los Alamos is the only place in the country where new pits are built, lab officials have said.
Overall, the House has proposed spending $5.9 billion on weapons activities nationwide, which is $396 million below 2007 and $632 million below the president’s 2008 budget request. Thirty-seven weapons programs would be cut nationwide. More money would be spent on renewable energy programs and nuclear nonproliferation.
“New activities within the nuclear weapons program are not supported pending the establishment of a clear policy and plan for our strategic deterrent, while all efforts required to maintain the current stockpile of nuclear weapons as safe and reliable are continued,” U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky, D-Ind., said in a statement. Visclosky chairs the House subcommittee that authored the appropriations bill.
Greg Mello of the Los Alamos Study Group said he believes lab managers could avoid layoffs through retirements and other reforms if the budget was cut. “The economic impact of staff leaving, provided they can retire with benefits, will not be significant,” he said.
Contact Andy Lenderman at 995-3827 or firstname.lastname@example.org.