The Albuquerque Journal

Lab Officials Reject Assessor's Report Of Missing Warhead

Friday July 2, 1999
Albuquerque Journal North

Journal Staff Writer

A whistleblower at Los Alamos nuclear-weapons lab said an internal inspection team found the lab might have lost track of a nuclear warhead in 1996.

Joe Gutierrez, an internal assessor at Los Alamos National Laboratory, said he and a team checking the security of the laboratory's nuclear explosives found significant gaps in the paper trail for a warhead's nuclear explosive.

Los Alamos officials say they are unaware of docu-ment problems on weapons components but are certain that no nuclear weapons or parts are lost.

"We aren't missing any bombs," said lab spokes-woman Kathy DeLucas. Los Alamos regularly receives nuclear-weapons com-ponents from Pantex, a weapons disassembly plant near Amarillo. Scientists inspect the weapons parts for signs of aging and test for malfunctions. They are pri-marily responsible for the thermonuclear components of a warhead that, taken as a whole, are technically known as the "physics package."

Tracking papers suggested a single warhead's physics package was shipped from Los Alamos but were unclear where it was sent, Gutierrez said Thursday. Same records showed the warhead was trucked to Albuquerque, "but no one was sure it actually had been transported to Albu-querque and not to Pantex or the Nevada Test Site. It could have been any one of two or three places."

"The paper trail was just very incomplete," Gutierrez said. The internal assessment team wanted to hunt down the war-head but was ordered not to by lab managers, he said.

"The assessors were saying 'Let's follow the trail and close the loop,"' Gutierrez said. "What they did was they took us off this and said they would assign somebody else."

An engineer by training, Gutierrez recently won a whistleblower case against the laboratory's operator, the Uni-versity of California. A U.S. Department of Labor judge ruled June 9 that lab managers illegally retaliated against Gutierrez for taking environ-mental and safety problems to Congress, the media and an activist watchdog group.

The judge has recommended the university pay $15,000 in emotional damages to Gutierrez and repay him for salary losses. Gutierrez says he decided to publicize problems at Los Alam-os because lab managers often downplayed or failed to correct security and safety problems that he raised as an assessor. He points as an example to the 1996 assessment of weapons compo-nent security at the lab.

"In this instance, we found they couldn't account fully for one (nuclear) device," he said. "The fact they would not let us look for this, that just leads us to suspect the whole system."

Lab officials find Gutierrez' claim confusing, said DeLucas. "We don't know about any missing paperwork or incorrectly filled out paperwork," she said. "We do know there are no missing bombs, warheads or physics packages."