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Energy secretary bars use of computer disks at labs

Follows report of missing items at Los Alamos

ALBUQUERQUE -- Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham yesterday ordered a halt to all Energy Department operations across the country that use the kind of computer disks reported missing last week at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Under his order, all nuclear weapons labs and other Energy Department installations will suspend work Monday involving removable data-storage devices such as computer disks and Zip drives. Research will be halted at as many as two dozen labs.

Each site will conduct an inventory of such items and perform weekly inventories after that. Staff will get more training, and security procedures will be reviewed.

The trouble at Los Alamos ''suggests that we must minimize the risk of human error or malfeasance to a much greater extent," Abraham said in a statement from Washington.

Energy Department officials did not say how long the operations would be halted.

Among the installations that said they would comply included Argonne National Laboratory outside Chicago; Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque; the nuclear weapons plant in Oak Ridge, Tenn.; and Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York.

The announcement was made after two computer disks were reported missing from Los Alamos on July 7. On Thursday, the nuclear weapons lab announced that 19 employees had been suspended pending an investigation into the security breach and a separate incident in which a worker suffered an eye injury from a laser.

Officials at Los Alamos are searching more than 2,000 safes and vaults for the disks, Abraham said. Work at the nuclear lab, which created the first atomic bomb, has been halted for a week.

''While we have no evidence that the problems currently being investigated [at Los Alamos] are present elsewhere, we have a responsibility to take all necessary action to prevent such problems from occurring at all," Abraham said.

The incident at the Los Alamos lab was the latest in a series of embarrassments there, including other security breaches and allegations of mismanagement and theft. The lab's troubles have prompted the government to put the contract to manage Los Alamos up for bid for the first time in its 61-year history.

The University of California has operated Los Alamos for the government since the lab was set up during World War II to build the atomic bomb.

Senator Wayne Allard, who has introduced legislation to terminate the contract, called the action yesterday ''a step in the right direction."

Pete Nanos, director of the Los Alamos lab, announced the staff suspensions as the lab and the University of California came under renewed criticism in Congress for the security problems.

Nanos said 15 of the workers were suspended because of the two computer disks that were discovered missing July 7.

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