05/30/2013 - 16:17

The assault on Los Alamos National Laboratory: A drama in three acts

Hugh Gusterson

An anthropologist, Gusterson is a professor of anthropology and sociology at George Mason University. His expertise is in nuclear culture, international security, and the anthropology of science....

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Since the late 1990s, nuclear weapons scientists at the US Department of Energy’s Los Alamos National Laboratory have faced an unanticipated threat to their work, from politicians and administrators whose reforms and management policies—enacted in the name of national security and efficiency—have substantially undermined the lab’s ability to function as an institution and to superintend the nuclear stockpile. Morale and productivity have suffered at Los Alamos—and at the nation’s other weapons lab, Lawrence Livermore. The institutional decline of Los Alamos has occurred in three distinct phases: beginning with an overreaction to the Chinese-American scientist Wen Ho Lee’s downloading of secret computer codes, exacerbated by the heavy-handed leadership of Admiral Pete Nanos, and continuing under new management by a for-profit company that focuses more on personal bonuses than on scientific achievement. The author writes that security lapses at Los Alamos are not, as media and government officials have portrayed them, the result of a culture of arrogance and carelessness. More likely, they are symptoms of structural flaws in the workplace, but it is easier to stereotype and scapegoat scientists than to address these structural problems.