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
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'
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. …