msnbc.com news services
updated 5/7/2005 2:02:50 PM ET 2005-05-07T18:02:50

The director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory who spent the past two years overhauling management of the nuclear weapons research center is stepping down to take up a Pentagon post, the University of California system said Friday.

A spokesman for the system, which has managed the center since 1943 when it launched as the Manhattan Project to develop the first atomic bombs, said Peter Nanos would be replaced on May 16 by interim director Robert Kuckuck, a nuclear physicist and veteran administrator at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

Nanos served as New Mexico-based Los Alamos National Laboratory's point man for two tumultuous years since taking charge in January 2003. A former Navy vice admiral, Nanos had inherited a host of problems at Los Alamos, including credit card fraud and equipment theft. He took office vowing to “drain the swamp” and restore public confidence.

In July 2004, he suspended all work so staff could focus on safety and security procedures. Most of the work resumed after 30 days, but activities involving nuclear or hazardous materials were suspended until the end of this past January.

The Energy Department said the seven-month work suspension cost up to $367 million. Lab officials put the loss figure much lower. The shutdown intensified criticism of Nanos, and some scientists posted complaints to a Web blog.

Nanos informed Los Alamos staff of his resignation by e-mail and said he thought the University of California system would not lose the federal contract to manage Los Alamos. Among other potential bidders are Lockheed Martin Corp., which runs Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, and defense contractor Northrop Grumman.

"I take great pride that during my tenure you vastly improved our business systems and processes, gained firm control of all our accountable classified electronic removable media, and pursued a comprehensive safety hazard identification process to protect each other," Nanos wrote in his e-mail.

Some lab workers celebrated news of Nanos’ departure at a restaurant near Los Alamos.

“Every table is packed, and the beer is flowing,” said Todd Kauppila, who was fired for his role in the case of two classified computer disks that were mistakenly thought to be missing — an incident that infuriated some lab employees.

Lab critic Peter Stockton of the Project on Government Oversight in Washington said that from a safety standpoint, Los Alamos under Nanos was “a mess.” “He didn’t listen to his own people even though he claimed he had an open door,” Stockton said Friday.

The new interim director, Robert Kuckuck, said he would initiate an open-door policy with lab employees. “I’m coming in at a time of stress for these folks,” he said. “They are operating under a microscope down there.”

This report includes information from Reuters and The Associated Press.

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