Nuclear Weapons Lab Shuffles Leaders

The head of the nation's top nuclear weapons lab has resigned. Pete Nanos is credited with improving management of Los Alamos, which has been buffeted by security and management scandals. But Nanos is also blamed for lagging morale.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

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The head of Los Alamos National Laboratory will be stepping down. Pete Nanos ran the nuclear weapons lab for two years. He was praised by some for leading the lab through a difficult time. He was criticized by others who felt he hurt morale. Nanos will be replaced by a veteran physicist, as NPR's David Kestenbaum reports.

DAVID KESTENBAUM reporting:

Pete Nanos is moving on to a job at the Department of Defense. He'll be remembered as a strong personality. Nanos once referred to some scientists as cowboys and buttheads during a staff meeting last year. Nanos was angry because lab workers couldn't find two classified computer disks. When a student later injured her eye with a laser, Nanos ordered all work at the lab to stop. It later turned out the apparently missing disks were actually the result of sloppy record-keeping. Parts of the lab stayed closed for nearly seven months.

Lawmakers in Washington praised Nanos for taking necessary steps, but at the lab, some scientists felt Nanos overreacted. The incoming director, Bob Kuckuck, says he's not surprised workers are frustrated.

Mr. BOB KUCKUCK (Incoming Director, Los Alamos National Laboratory): You know, this is a stressful time, and these people have spent their life at that laboratory and have been dedicated, and all of a sudden they're the targets of a lot of audits and attacks. And, no, I think that's a pretty stressful place right now.

KESTENBAUM: Kuckuck has worked at the rival weapons facility Lawrence Livermore National Lab in California for more than 35 years. He takes over at a difficult time. Just yesterday, some members of Congress complained that scientists at the lab were still not taking security and safety seriously. Kuckuck says he thinks Los Alamos is on the right track.

Mr. KUCKUCK: And I think they've made a lot of very good improvements in their business and operational side in safety and security over the last couple years. They're not without stress, and they're certainly different than we used to do business, so we all have to deal with that.

KESTENBAUM: Los Alamos has been run by the University of California for the last 60 years. The Department of Energy will soon allow others to bid to run the lab for the first time. Two defense contractors have expressed interest. Kuckuck says he'll stay with the lab until that's all resolved. David Kestenbaum, NPR News.

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