Dec 27, 2007

Misadventures at the U.S. Energy Department

By Hugh Gusterson | Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

I had intended to write this month's column about a talk given by Tom D'Agostino, head of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), on his plans to reorganize the nuclear weapons complex for the twenty-first century. Instead, I'm writing about why I wasn't allowed to hear D'Agostino's talk.

A friend had forwarded an e-mail message from the NNSA saying that on December 18, D'Agostino would "announce his vision for the future of the nuclear weapons complex" at the Energy Department's headquarters in Washington. Since I'm in the midst of writing a book on the transformation of the nuclear weapons complex, this sounded like just the event for me. As the message took the form of a press release, I called D'Agostino's office and asked if university professors such as myself were allowed to attend. "Of course," I was told, "come on down."

When I arrived at the Energy building, I was told to get a pro forma badge from the front desk. The guard put information from my driver's license into her computer and started to print my badge when she casually asked, "You're a U.S. citizen, right?" As it so happens, although I've lived in this country for 27 years and have possessed a green card for 14 of those years, I'm a British citizen. I knew from watching others that if I nodded, no one would check my citizenship and I could proceed unhindered to D'Agostino's talk; but, alas, my mother taught me to always tell the truth. (Many years ago, this is how I got a ticket for an illegal U-turn when the cop offered me an easy out by asking if I'd seen the no U-turn sign in the dark. But I digress.)

The guard then said she would need to look for my name on "the list," reaching for a sheaf of printed pages. I hoped that this was a list of dangerous foreigners, and that my name was not on it. Instead, it was a list of approved foreigners, and my name was not on it.

Another guard was called. He peered at my green card, turning it over and over; he then asked, "But are you a U.S. citizen?" Twice. This seemed an odd question to ask someone with a green card. He looked uncomfortable: He didn't want to turn me away, but he didn't want to let me in either. He started calling numbers in the building to find someone to tell him what to do. I protested that I’d been to a public hearing in the building just a few months earlier with no problem. The first guard then said that anyone was allowed in, even foreigners, if it was a public event. Was this a public event? I said yes. They looked skeptical. Neither guard had heard of D'Agostino, one of the five most important people in the building, or his speech, which made the front page of the next day's Washington Post.

At this point, I spied George M. Bernier III, the NNSA's Congressional Affairs Officer, who I recognized from other Energy events. I asked him if he could vouch to the guards that this was a public event. Instead, he came over to the guards and announced that only media and Energy employees were allowed in. If this was so, Energy clearly had a problem since I had just seen an anti-nuclear activist get a badge and go through to D'Agostino's talk. It also meant that, even if I were a U.S. citizen, I was still barred from the event. New rules! In the course of a few hours, this event had gone from being open to the public to being open to the public except for foreigners to being closed to the public.

Ironically, if I had stayed home, I could have listened to D'Agostino's talk without difficulty, since the press release gave instructions for tuning in by satellite dish, as well as an 888 number one could call to listen. Apparently foreigners are allowed to listen by phone--at the U.S. government's expense, no less.

My misadventure on Independence Avenue was a trivial event, but it encapsulates in miniature everything that is wrong with Energy. There was disagreement among Energy employees on the basic rules of admission, so that whether you got in depended on which employee you asked; a rule against admitting foreigners that, in the absence of any checking mechanism, was left to the foreigners themselves to enforce; two guards who had no idea what was happening in the building they guarded, and who were clearly terrified of exercising discretion; one guard who didn’t know what a green card was; and an event that was being broadcast by satellite and over an 888-number but was closed to foreigners in the flesh.

Even by the standards of the U.S. government, Energy is notorious for its mismanagement. While it keeps holding press conferences to announce new, more efficient organizational charts, the situation on the ground goes from bad to worse. The day I was turned away from Energy headquarters, the press announced a $2.8 million fine for an Energy contractor, the University of California, stemming from more than 1,000 pages of classified documents from Los Alamos National Laboratory found in a drug bust at a trailer park--the latest in a series of security lapses at Los Alamos that go back at least to the Wen Ho Lee case. Meanwhile, Energy's National Ignition Facility at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory is about 300 percent over budget and six years behind schedule, while the dual-arm hydrotest facility at Los Alamos, more than $300 million later, failed when it was tested at full power.

My comical experience at Energy's front door suggests a lumbering bureaucracy that doesn't know what it's doing and whose parts don't communicate with one another. How then can we expect such an agency to steward the nation's aging nuclear stockpile, solve the nuclear waste problem, and bring new energy technologies to fruition?


Anonymous said...

I feel sorry for you that the DOE Forrestal building on Dec. 18, 2007 in fact was the Hyde of Washington, DC.

But, today, Dec. 27, 2007 after the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan, it must be a higher priority that the U.S. control the ≈60 nuclear weapons in Pakistan, so they don´t fall into the hands of terrorists, and remember both HVT1 and HVT2 has threatened to topple the Musharraf´s regime in Pakistan.

Anonymous said...

Great story but it should surprise no one who works for DOE or their new LLC contractors.

Congress, are you listening? No, I didn't think so.

Anonymous said...

We feel for you, Hugh. Now, how do you think the many folks at the labs and plants feel in wading through that incompetance on a daily basis? This is no news to anyone that deals with DOE.

Anonymous said...

This is yet, another reason, I took the voluntary and am leaving the DOE complex altoghether for good!! I can't imagine a more incompetent agency of an incompetent government to give responsibility for the nuclear stockpile. It has bled to the surface where even an attendee of an open conference becomes victim. How much more evidence does one need?

Anonymous said...

"How then can we expect such an agency to steward the nation's aging nuclear stockpile, solve the nuclear waste problem, and bring new energy technologies to fruition?"

We can't. It's time for the presidential candidates to speak up on how dysfunctional Energy is and have a clear plan for dissolving it. Except of course Richardson who is partially responsible for the bumbling bureacrats who are Energy employees.

There is no way that Energy can keep anyone safe from Pakistan's nuclear weapons.

Anonymous said...

If I had not experienced similar incompetence on a number of occasions, I would have thought that this story was made up.

Anonymous said...

Oh my god!!! How horrible!!

I say we should react just like many of those in Pakistan and riot in the streets, burn down the Forrestal and bring down the government.

How dare them :)

Anonymous said...

The professor is a neophyte. Welcome to our world, chum. Try doing science under the thumb of this incompetence.

Anonymous said...

Not to be smart mouthed, but if DOE is so incompetent why don't you do something about it? As one of the best and brightest it should be easy for you to win a job over the C students, and you would quickly rise to the top where you could bring competence to that organization using your vast knowledge of organizational incompetence accumulated by working at LANL. You could save the day and be a hero!

Seriously; everyone complains about incompetence of those above, yet no one proposes solutions or works to increase the level of competence. Why not?

Anonymous said...

12/28/07 11:57 AM: "The professor is a neophyte."

Hugh Gusterson is hardly a neophyte, and is in fact a noted expert on the sociological and anthropoligical inside story of the weapons design community. Try reading his books and articles on the subject. As a young scientist, he did extensive field work at LLNL near the end of the Cold War -- very interesting work.

Now a professor at MIT, I can only imagine he finds this blog a wealth of things to ponder -- I'm surprised he hasn't already written a book on it.

Of course, since he's not at LANL, he must not be the best and brightest, nor the center of the universe, eh?

Anonymous said...

Have you ever been to DOE Headquarters, 2:54?

I thought not. Before you can ask that question, you need to have spent some time there. You need to have met with the the top and middle managers, as well as the worker-bees.

Until you have done that, you don't know enough to ask the question as you did. You simply would not have the basis to understand the stupendous inertia, stupidity, and lethargy that defines DOE.

Anonymous said...

Yes, 3:23 pm, I have been to DOE HQ a number of times.

So, you are saying it's hopeless? If so, why do you work at a DOE-funded lab? Take action; either fix the problem or leave the problem. Sitting around complaining about it makes you look rather silly. If you think it can be done better, then do something about it.

Inertia is tough to battle but you personally can combat stupidity and lethargy by going there to work, since you are obviously bright and hard working.

Anonymous said...


You appear to have a bad habit of making assumptions. I left LANL in 2005 for a much healthier work place.

Anonymous said...

The best "fix" is also the cleanest and quickest. Rip the nuclear weapon labs away from NNSA/DOE and put them under the domain of DOD. It's not a perfect solution but it would be far better than what we have today.

DOD is the 800-pound gorilla when it comes to getting their way in Washington DC. Being under DOD would help the labs secure much better funding in future years. There is also a wonderful fit between the things that these labs are good at (supercomputing, material science, novel detectors, etc.) and what DOD needs to improve national security and protect the troops. This good fit is a large part of the reason that SNL has been so successful at bringing in lots of DOD WFO projects.

It long overdue for the nuclear labs to be removed from DOE's domain. Congress needs to start taking action and make it happen.

Anonymous said...

3:48 pm; good job, taking action! Too bad you didn't try to fix the problem, but at least you did something! Of course, you were assuming I'd never been to HQ so perhaps I learned the assumption habit from you?

4:02 pm; there are some very good reasons that the civilian side of the government controls the nuclear labs instead of the military. I hope it remains so.

Anonymous said...

True, 5:08, there was plenty of assumption going on. BTW, I forgot to mention that in addition to moving to a much healthier company, my new sponsors are orders of magnitude more intelligent than DOE.

Anonymous said...

5:08 PM, at one time long ago there were some good reasons for having the design of nuclear weapons under a civilian agency like the AEC. Those days are now over.

No more weapons are going to be built and the even the idea of doing new designs (ala RRW) is all but dead.

Your dog no longer hunts. It's time to put the weapon labs under a Department that is functional and relegate both DOE and NNSA to the dustbin of history.

Anonymous said...

"the civilian side of the government controls the nuclear labs instead of the military. I hope it remains so.

12/28/07 5:08 PM"

I thought the labs are now run by for profit pivate companies.

Anonymous said...

Yes, 12:32, private companies/consortia (not all are for-profit) run the labs under contract, but the overall control is via DOE. DOE controls what and where things happen for the large picture.

Anonymous said...

Does anyone care to explain why there is no "Department of Science" in the US? Why are science and research not a Cabinet level concern of the Executive branch? If Congress wanted to improve things they'd create a "Department of Science and Research" (DSR) and place NASA, the DOE national labs, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the screwed up Dept of Homeland Security research directorate all under this department. Time has proven again and again that you can not reform or improve a large governmental bureaucratic monster like DOE - you just have to start over with a clean slate. Then the DSR national labs (LANL and LLNL) would do work for NNSA as WFO.

Anonymous said...

12/28/07 10:52 PM:

Your dog no longer hunts. It's time to put the weapon labs under a Department [Defense] that is functional and relegate both DOE and NNSA to the dustbin of history.


Move them under the R&D branch of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency in DOD -- led by LANL's favorite former LANL Director, Pete Nanos.

Be careful what you wish for.

Gussie Fink-Nottle said...

We'd have to start a new blog.


Anonymous said...

I'll take my chances, 9:26 AM. Nothing could be worse than the present situation we currently face working at LANL under a broken NNSA who are beholden to a dysfunctional DOE. Re-read the main article once again if you need reminding of just how screwed up things are at DOE.

I don't see DOD getting beaten up like NNSA and DOE by Congress and the press. It's long past time for some radical changes in who manages the US weapon labs. And don't try pulling out the Nanos boogie-man. Nanos is a has-been and your fear tactic in bringing up his name smacks of desperation.

Anonymous said...

"...suggests a lumbering bureaucracy that doesn't know what it's doing and whose parts don't communicate with one another..."

Get of your high horse there. Lord Fontleroy, you'll be hard pressed to find any large undertaking not fitting your critique. If your marriage is like mine, it fits the description above quite well.