Top officials of the embattled Los Alamos National Laboratory have resigned, signaling what may be a dramatic overhaul of a major U.S. science center. Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham revealed yesterday that lab chief John Browne and his top aide will leave their posts next week in the wake of security and fraud scandals. The Department of Energy (DOE) is also considering ending the lab's 60-year association with the University of California, which manages the lab under contract with DOE.
Secretly established on an isolated New Mexico mesa in 1943 to build the first atomic bomb, Los Alamos is now one of the world's premier science centers. The sprawling complex, which has a $2.2 billion annual budget and nearly 11,000 employees, is best known for its classified work on nuclear weapons. But scientists and engineers have also used the lab's world-class supercomputers and research tools to study everything from climate change to superconducting materials.
In the last 5 years, however, the lab has become enmeshed in a series of high- profile controversies, including a largely failed 1998 government attempt to prosecute lab physicist Wen Ho Lee for giving weapons secrets to China. More recently, Congress launched several inquiries after lab leaders fired two investigators who blew the whistle on credit-card misuse by lab employees and revealed that auditors couldn't find computers and other equipment worth millions of dollars.
Abraham's unhappiness over that scandal apparently led to Browne's resignation, which he submitted to the University of California on 23 December. The physicist, who has spent much of his career in the weapons complex, had led the lab since 1997. He told reporters that he will return to research and perhaps do some teaching. Principal deputy director Joseph Salgado is also stepping down. The lab will be led on an interim basis by lab official George Nanos, a retired Navy admiral.
Abraham, meanwhile, says he is worried about "systemic management failure' at the lab and has asked DOE officials to review the role of the university, which also manages two other DOE laboratories. Their report is due on 30 April. University officials have promised reforms, but "this could be the beginning of a very messy divorce," says one congressional aide, noting that several prominent members of Congress have long called on DOE to award the management contract to another university or company.
Browne's resignation statement