February 2003

Nuke 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

[Posted 03/02/2003]

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 for comment.

"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 said.

"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 matter."

"There is absolutely no connection between Chris Steele's status today and the (nuclear safety violation)," Martinez said.

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.

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