The Clash of Science and Security ; While Officials Promise Tighter Controls at Labs, Tension Persists between Openness and Secrecy

Article excerpt

Behind the political thrust-and-parry over accountability at the nation's nuclear labs is a fundamental problem that has confounded the government since the dawn of the Atomic Age: the clash between science and security.

The US government has tried for 50 years to balance the two sides, giving scientists as much latitude as possible to freely exchange ideas - but also setting up a cloistered environment to ensure that no nuclear-weapons secrets are released.

But the recent lost-and-found episode over computer hard drives at Los Alamos National Laboratory shows the difficulty of keeping these competing interests in balance.

While Energy Secretary Bill Richardson said yesterday that the recovered hard drives have so far yielded no evidence of espionage, the incident has again touched off a war of words between those who say the labs' protocols threaten national security and those who say lab constrictions are so tight that increasingly fewer scientists are willing to work there.

Mr. Richardson, who oversees the labs, has described the problem as "human" in nature. While he made material and procedural changes at the labs, he says he failed to take into account that "the lab culture needs more time to be changed."

Now under intense pressure from Republicans to resign, Richardson testified yesterday before an incensed Senate Armed Services Committee and vigorously defended more than 21 security measures he's taken and outlined new ones. But it's not clear if the measures, which include logging in and out any people and material from the lab's vaults, will solve the enduring cultural divide.

"You cannot prevent the possibility of human error, misjudgment, or carelessness," says Rick Malaspina, spokesman for the president of the University of California, which manages Los Alamos for the government. The tension between science and security, he adds, "is endemic."

The culture clash goes back more than 50 years to the top-secret Manhattan Project, which hatched the atom bomb. The military wanted to control the scientists, masking how their pieces of the work fit into the whole. The Pentagon even planted microphones in scientists' homes.

But the scientists resisted. Richard Feynman, a Nobel physicist, took pleasure in circumventing security controls. Once, he left the complex through a guarded gate and returned through a hole in a fence - repeating the route until a guard finally noticed.

Eventually, secrets were passed to the Russians. A key source was Klaus Fuchs, a German scientist who worked at Los Alamos. But Edward Teller, director emeritus of the Lawrence Livermore lab, says that exchange of information is essential, despite the risks.

"Openness and international cooperation are very old traditions," says Dr. Teller.

That sentiment persists in the labs today. When Richardson called for lie-detector tests last year, half the people in the lab's X Division signed a petition opposing them. …