Lab Whistle-Blower Suspended
Wired News -Reuters, Los Alamos, New Mexico,
January 31, 2003
Original address: http://www.wired.com/news/politics/0,1283,57514,00.html
The Department of Energy has suspended a senior
safety manager at Los Alamos National Laboratory without explanation
after he criticized the lab for the unsafe storage of plutonium-contaminated
waste, a watchdog group said on Wednesday.
Energy Department officials deny the suspension
had anything to do with the employee's safety investigation, but critics
of the lab say the action is another example of whistle-blower retribution
at the nuclear lab that developed the first atomic bomb.
Christopher Steele worked for the Department of
Energy's National Nuclear Safety Administration and was in charge of
ensuring the laboratory followed federal nuclear safety requirements.
He was put on administrative leave without pay in November, said the
Project on Government Oversight, which has made public charges about
a number of problems at the lab.
A spokesman for NNSA confirmed that Steele was on
administrative leave, but said the move had nothing to do with the charges
outlined by the watchdog group. Officials at the Los Alamos National
Laboratory would not comment and Steele was not immediately available
"LANL was unhappy with him because he wasn't
signing off fast enough on safety requirements," said Peter Stockton,
a senior investigator with the group in Washington, D.C.
Steele charged in a memo in August 2001 the lab
had conducted unauthorized and unsafe storage of nuclear waste, Stockton
"They believed he was a thorn in their side,
and bang, he's gone," Stockton said.
Steele was investigating, among other things, the
storage of radioactive waste -- mostly clothing, tools and other contaminated
items -- that was being kept temporarily in a steel shed. The storage
did not meet federal safety requirements, Stockton said.
The Energy Department fined the lab $220,000 in
late December for a serious breach of safety.
Dennis Martinez, deputy director for the Energy
Department's NNSA office in New Mexico, said he could not release information
relating to Steele's administrative leave, calling it "a personnel
"There is absolutely no connection between
Chris Steele's status today and the (nuclear safety violation),"
In a separate incident, two lab investigators were
fired in November after issuing a report that charged the lab with extensive
corruption and mismanagement.
Former Los Alamos Director John Browne and other
top managers resigned about a month ago, following security mishaps,
theft and corruption allegations that tarnished the reputation of the
famed nuclear lab.