It's been a rough couple of years at Los Alamos National Laboratory, the remote New Mexico facility established during World War II to help build the first atomic bomb. Last year, most classified work at the lab was shut down in response to a series of embarrassing safety and security lapses, the latest in a line that reaches back to 2000 and the scandal surrounding Wen Ho Lee, the scientist who took home classified data, was accused by the government of spying, and eventually served all of nine months after a five-year investigation. Since then, two lab employees have been found guilty of embezzlement; more than 200 computers have been stolen or gone missing, in addition to numerous lost or misplaced disks and drives; the keys to a nuclear research center vanished for 16 hours; and, last summer, as staffers were searching for two more missing Zip disks, they were also investigating the transmission of classified information over unsecured e-mail. The University of California system has operated the lab since its opening in 1943 but, because of the recent problems, now faces fierce competition from the University of Texas to win the contract again. Of course, the lab also has its defenders, who argue that the unique science of nuclear research makes ordinary safety precautions moot, and that the scientists must be free from government hassles to move the field forward.
Are you an apologist for Los Alamos? Take our quiz and find out!
1) In 2000, two hard drives with detailed descriptions of known weapons designs went missing at the laboratory. A few weeks later, amid an FBI investigation, the drives reappeared behind a copy machine in the same area from which they'd vanished. How do you explain the phenomenon?
A) It's obvious: A staff member spirited away the hard drives long enough to copy the information, then returned them to the lab when the FBI showed up.
B) Looking behind the copy machine? See, that's why you call in the FBI.
C) Nuclear physics.
2) Many have blamed the ongoing security lapses at Los Alamos on an insular culture at the isolated facility, where safety precautions are often regarded as secondary to scientific pursuits. Some physicists, according to news reports, even sport sarcastic bumper stickers that protest government oversight by declaring, “Support a work-free safety zone.” Is it fair to blame scientists for the security lapses?
A) Absolutely. Even if you're a genius, you should be able to label a floppy disk.
B) Hey, man, do you think Einstein was safe?
C) Define “lapse.” Meanwhile, has anyone seen my centrifuge?
3) Last summer, Los Alamos suffered its most humiliating safety-related embarrassment: A 20-year-old student intern, working on experiments involving a class-4 pulsed laser that she (mistakenly) believed to be turned off, allowed the intense, invisible rays to penetrate her left eye, causing hemorrhaging and a lesion to her retina. How can Los Alamos avoid such incidents in the future?
A) Stop hiring interns at a top-secret nuclear facility.
B) Let folks from Texas run it; I'm sure that'll cut down on the weapons-related mishaps.
C) “Misplace” the laser.
4) Which of these quotes do you think most accurately describes the atmosphere at Los Alamos?
A) Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), chair of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, at a Washington hearing on the lab's security failures: “[T]here's probably better security at the … public library over CDs and videos that are on the Blockbuster top- 10 list.”
B) Los Alamos spokesman Jim Fallin: “[Employees] have a sense of institutional embarrassment. They understand that what we're talking about today is the survival of the institution.”
C) Harold Agnew, who helped develop the first atomic bomb and was director of Los Alamos from 1970 to 1979, and who is an adviser to the UC president on lab issues: “I'm just baffled.”
5) It's June 2003. You're an employee at Los Alamos. You've lost two glass vials of plutonium-239, the highly carcinogenic ingredient in nuclear bombs. Where do you look for them? (Note: This is NOT a hypothetical question.)
A) In the on-site waste-disposal drums; someone must have mislabeled the vials and thrown them away, and that someone should be fired.
B) Behind the copy machine. (Bonus point for adding: “Hey, it worked before.”)
6) Although the University of California regents have received intense criticism in the wake of financial and safety scandals at the laboratory, they voted 11-1 last week to pursue the highly valuable oversight contract. Do you think running Los Alamos is in the best interest of the University of California?
A) Running from Los Alamos, maybe.
B) Look, it's a desolate nuclear lab in the middle of the New Mexico desert — who better to oversee it than the University of California? (Bonus point for admitting that we might as well just surrender to the terrorists.)
C) Hey, it's worked so far, hasn't it?
7) There have been whispers that the Department of Energy has rigged the bidding process to favor the application from the University of Texas, and that officials are uneasy with the thought of continued UC leadership. Do you think politics could be a factor in the awarding of the contract?
A) Nah. I think UC's legacy of incompetence speaks for itself.
B) How dare you suggest our nation's leaders would play politics with national security. Really, how dare you!
C) Maybe if the competing bid were from any other state, but Texas? I just can't see this federal administration trying to subvert the rules in favor of Texas ….
How to score:
Score zero points for every “A” answer, one point for every “B,” and two points for every “C.”
0-6 points: Congratulations, you're a veritable Isaac Newton. Hey, wanna run a nuclear lab?
7-10 points: On the fence is always a good place to be when it comes to issues of national nuclear security.
11-14 points: You are a true Los Alamos apologist. Now lose this quiz.