Energy Department Denies Los Alamos Suspension Was Retaliatory

Energy Department officials say a federal safety officer's suspension from Los Alamos National Laboratory was unrelated to his having called attention to radioactive material stored improperly at the lab.

Christopher Steele, a senior safety officer for the Energy Department's National Nuclear Security Administration, was put on administrative leave by the department in November. Steele had disagreed with lab managers over safety issues at Los Alamos, including the plutonium storage.

NNSA spokesman Anson Franklin said the violations at Los Alamos had nothing to do with disciplinary action against Steele. Franklin could not elaborate since it is a pending personnel matter.

"I think some people are trying to make some connections that aren't there," Franklin said.

Los Alamos managers have been under intense scrutiny in a separate scandal stemming from claims of $2.7 million worth of missing computers and other equipment and misuse of lab credit cards. Two whistleblowing lab investigators, who were fired by the lab, were recently hired as advisers to the University of California, which manages the lab.

Five top lab managers have been toppled since the allegations came to light, including former Director John Browne. The FBI, Energy Department and Congress are investigating the lab and congressional hearings are expected next month.

Steele works for an Energy Department agency. Franklin said Steele's claims are not tied to the other management issues at the lab.

The Project on Government Oversight, a Washington, D.C.-based watchdog group, contends lab officials pressured the Energy Department to suspend Steele for refusing to sign off on waste storage plans at the lab.

"He was finding problems and they didn't like it," POGO investigator Peter Stockton said Wednesday.

In 2001, Los Alamos officials discovered plutonium-tainted trash had been improperly stored in a building that did not meet the Energy Department's safety guidelines.

NNSA issued a notice of violation to the university last month that could have resulted in $220,000, but the lab is exempt by law from civil penalties.

University of California spokesman Michael Reese said lab officials had a productive relationship with Steele and DOE's decision to put him on leave is unrelated to lab issues.

"The fundamental point here was that he was doing his job. The lab understood that and never would have gone to his superiors and asked that any action be taken against him," Reese said.

Steele didn't respond to telephone messages left at his home Wednesday.

House Energy and Commerce Committee spokesman Ken Johnson said the committee, which is investigating other whistleblower allegations, is aware of the Steele incident.

"We have been told that Steele's suspension was for reasons unrelated to his investigation, but if that proves to be untrue someone is going to be in big trouble," he said. "Congress simply will not tolerate recriminations against whistleblowers."