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Los Alamos National Lab Blog Draws Ire on Hill


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

A blog is a Web site that serves as a kind of personal journal. There are blogs written by political types, film fans, cat owners and there is the blog set up by a scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory, the birthplace of the atomic bomb. The blog began as a kind of virtual bulletin board for employees to post concerns and complaints. The lab was under intense scrutiny. A student had injured her eye with a laser, and for a short while, it looked as if two classified disks had disappeared. The idea of the blog was that open, thoughtful discussion was a good idea, but then members of Congress started reading it and they saw things a little differently. NPR's David Kestenbaum reports.


It was winter of last year and morale at the lab was generally pretty low. Over the summer, the director had shut the lab down. He was concerned some scientists were not taking security and safety seriously. And six months later, many scientists still had not resumed their normal work. Doug Roberts, a computer programmer at the lab, said he felt employees needed a forum to share ideas and talk things through.

Mr. DOUG ROBERTS (Computer Program, Los Alamos National Laboratory): And then one day, I was driving back to the house and I was hungry and I noticed a fast-food restaurant and they had a sign out front that said, `Free wireless Internet.' So I pulled in, got a salad, opened up my laptop and two hours later, I created the blog which is named LANL: The Real Story.

KESTENBAUM: LANL is L-A-N-L, Los Alamos National Laboratory. People sent Roberts e-mails, usually anonymously, which he posted on the blog. Some were worried about pensions, one complained about parking at the lab, but many were furious at the director Pete Nanos for shutting down the lab for so long. Some signed an online petition calling for Nanos to step down. This month, Nanos did. Roberts says he has no way of knowing if the blog played a role. One thing is clear. On Capitol Hill, the blog appeared to backfire.

Representative DIANA DeGETTE (Democrat, Colorado): I've got the blog right here.

KESTENBAUM: Diana DeGette is a Democratic congresswoman from Colorado. The scene: a recent House subcommittee hearing on the management at Los Alamos.

Rep. DeGETTE: It's page after page after page after page of anonymous postings of people gripping and frankly I have a daughter who's in high school. I'm appalled the level of these complaints are like high school student complaints. They're not like, `The management is doing this particular thing that respects one of our high-level nuclear facilities.' Wrong. It's about, `Gee, I don't like Nanos and I wish he'd go to hell.' That's the level of complaining in this blog. Would you agree with that?

Mr. JERRY PAUL (National Nuclear Security Administration): It's hard to disagree.

KESTENBAUM: Answering the question there was Jerry Paul, principal deputy administrator for the National Nuclear Security Administration, which oversees the lab. It got worse. Bart Stupak, Democrat from Michigan, also read aloud from the blog. It made him wonder if the lab could ever be fixed.

Representative BART STUPAK (Democrat, Michigan): Well, let me ask you this then. What is so special at Los Alamos that we go through this year after year, that what's being done in Los Alamos, why can't it be transferred to other labs? In other words, why do we need Los Alamos?

KESTENBAUM: So a blog intended to help fix things at the lab ended up being read by a member of Congress who then proposed shutting the whole place down. Doug Roberts, the Los Alamos scientist, says it's kind of shocking to think that a blog he created at a fast-food restaurant ended up at the center of a congressional hearing and it didn't feel good.

Mr. ROBERTS: All things considered, I'd rather have been on vacation somewhere.

KESTENBAUM: Roberts says members of Congress didn't actually read the blog very thoroughly. He says many of the posts were thoughtful and constructive and he thinks on balance the blog is a healthy thing.

Mr. ROBERTS: I think any process that can't withstand the scrutiny that an open venue of discussion provides probably has some serious flaws in it somewhere and that system needs to adjust itself to the fact that free flow of information is in part what this country is all about.

KESTENBAUM: And in the end on Capitol Hill that day, someone stood up to try to put the blog in perspective. Surprisingly, it was Gregory Friedman, inspector general at the Department of Energy, the DOE's own watchdog for fraud and waste.

Mr. GREGORY FRIEDMAN (Inspector General, Department of Energy): Probably the smartest thing to do would be for me to stay out of the line of fire, but let me indulge my passion for danger. There are 14,000 people working at Los Alamos and a number of bloggers who may be expressing personal angst and that's legitimate, but the vast majority of people there are extraordinarily dedicated Nobel Prize winners. They're an extraordinary group of people, and my job is actually going out and being a critic and here I am saying something in support of them in support of the mission.

KESTENBAUM: The blog has had another unforeseen audience. Doug Roberts says people at Lockheed Martin and the Northrop Grumman Corporation have been reading it. Those are defense contractors who may bid to take the lab away from its current steward, the University of California, and that's another thing many who write into the blog don't want to happen.

David Kestenbaum, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Kestenbaum is a correspondent for NPR, covering science, energy issues and, most recently, the global economy for NPR's multimedia project Planet Money. David has been a science correspondent for NPR since 1999. He came to journalism the usual way — by getting a Ph.D. in physics first.