Watchdog blogger tells 'the rest of the story' at Los Alamos labs
By Trip Jennings, The New Mexico Independent
Frank Young runs LANL: The Rest of the Story, a blog about the inner workings at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL).
Young, aka Pinky and the Brain to his regular readers (the Brain is his wife, Dorothy), has operated the blog for more than a year, picking up the mantle from two predecessors who provided a forum for lab insiders to vent, while giving outsiders a window into one of the U.S.’s most famous laboratories.
What Young’s blog lacks in numbers of readers it makes up for in quality and influence. Readers at Congressional offices and the Pentagon are among his regular viewers, he says, as well as folks as far away as Russia and China.
Young, who is 45 and now lives in Houston, says he became interested in the lab after working there for a contractor. Later, he became sick from what he believes was exposure to high-level liquid radioactive waste at the lab. He has written about his sickness here.
The blog is a blend of news about the lab and the nuclear community, articles contributed by readers and articles Young has written himself. Most of the content is contributed by readers in the comment threads, he says.
“Those [comments] are the most interesting part of this,” Young says. “There’s a mix — some hateful stuff, some humorous stuff and some very thoughtful stuff.”
Beyond LANL, Young has begun to track larger issues. He just returned from a nuclear deterrence summit in Washington the first week of December.
“They invited me,” Young says. “I had to pay travel and expenses, but they waived the $1,100 registration fee. They consider me a member of the press.”
We talked more with Young about The Rest of the Story and the politics and science of blogging.
NMI: What is your relationship to LANL?
FY: The Army brought me out West. My last duty station was Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas. [After leaving the Army,] I took a job with a firm in Albuquerque that does business throughout New Mexico. Most of our work was with a few big customers. The lab was one of them. I’ve probably worked at almost every tech area in the lab. As an electrical engineer, I tested power systems and also did repairs and upgrades. Just to be clear, I was never an employee of the lab.
How did you get interested in the goings on at LANL?
I started following the story of safety and security problems because I was involved. The big issue for me was becoming sick and wanting to know what I had been exposed to. The last place I worked at Los Alamos was TA-55 [Tech Area 55, the plutonium facility where plutonium pits are made]. That was a two-week project that started April 1, 2002.
I have not worked since then. Accidents happen. I don’t blame anybody and I’m not interested in suing anybody. I just want an answer.
How did you come to take up the original blog for the LANL community?
When I first discovered the original blog, it was like a gold mine to me. I read it daily and fast-tracked my understanding of how the weapons-complex worked. It’s not an easy thing for an outsider to teach himself. When that blog ended, someone else took up the mantle for a while. When the second blog ended, I decided to do it if no one else would. I’ve been doing it since April 1, 2007. None of the blogs are anti-lab, by the way, just anti-bad management.
How do you get your information?
People at the lab contact me through the blog’s email address. They’ll send me ideas, material they want posted … I even get fan mail. I try to keep it mostly related to LANL. I think that’s about as much as one person can handle.
Do you allow people to remain anonymous when they send you stuff?
Absolutely. Anyone can email me anonymously. Often they don’t hide who they are from me but still request that I publish what they sent without naming them. I have been doing this long enough that if I released their names, word would get around and people would stop sending me stuff. Heck, for the first year, I was anonymous. I understand the situation my readers are in.
How many contributors do you have?
I’ve never counted but I’d say easily over a hundred. There are regular contributors who send me stories they want posted every day, and then there are a lot of people who have contributed only once or twice.
How do you get the content?
I’ve only written a few of the posts myself. Most are news articles or written by a reader. The majority of the content is contributed by readers in the form of comment threads that trail posts.
Why do you think they participate in the blog?
I think most readers are seeing things they believe aren’t right and they want a way to fix them and they don’t see any other way other than the blog. It gives them a voice in a way that poses no risk to their careers.
What is your relationship with the labs’ administration?
There are a lot of people who I or the blog readers have criticized harshly who probably don’t like it. There are also people in the administration who are some of my sources. It’s hard to view the lab as one single entity. It is a bunch of groups that sometimes fight with each other. It’s Balkanized.
Do you see yourself as fulfilling a public service?
I don’t think the public benefits a lot, because I think the public is mostly not paying attention. I guess it’s a service for the Los Alamos community and stakeholders.
What is the most rewarding part of providing the blog?
What is humbling to me is who reads it. The Senate, the House, the Pentagon, the State Department, the Department of Energy, all the branches of the military, all the other labs. I get hits from all over the world. There is a person in Sweden who reads it for hours every day. The only domain I can think of that I have never seen reading the blog is whitehouse.gov.
Where do most of the hits come from?
The lab recently blocked Internet communication with the blog’s stat counter and site meter, so I don’t see hits from LANL.gov anymore, though you can still read the blog from work at LANL. Before that about 80 percent of my hits came from the lab.
Do you get feedback from the Pentagon or the Senate, or the House?
Indirectly, yes. I’ve gotten feedback that they read it every day. I can also see what they are reading by looking at the logs.
The principal assistant deputy administrator for National Nuclear Security Administration Defense Programs came to Los Alamos for an an all-hands meeting and said the blog was “one of the most informative sources of information he’s found regarding what’s going on inside the Lab.”
At the Nuclear Deterrence Summit this month, a deputy director of another lab told me that what I was doing was great, was improving things, and to keep up the good work. He also mentioned he was thankful I wasn’t blogging about his lab.