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Retirements a worrisome trend at national lab
Scripps Howard News Service


June 06, 2005

Albuquerque, N.M. - One thing about smart people - they have options.

In the wake of problems at Los Alamos National Laboratory, some of the smartest people in the country are starting to exercise those options - by retiring. And that trend has lab officials worried, said James Rickman, a lab spokesman.

"It looks like the numbers are higher than normal so far for this fiscal year," Rickman said of the cycle that started in October.

"Since October we've had 162 retirements, and we also have about 200 pending, but they can change their minds. That seems to show a 50 percent higher retirement rate this year than last."

The lab employs about 8,200 people, mostly highly skilled scientists. Of those, 39 percent are 50 or older - meaning retirement age, Rickman said.

In 2003, 235 people retired, or about 3 percent of the work force. In 2004, 251 retired, or about 3.1 percent of the work force, Rickman said.

"For 2005 we're projecting 4.6 percent of the work force, or about 380 people," Rickman said. "But we just don't have the June data yet, which will be telling. That's when most people retire, and that will tell the tale. It could be better; it could be worse. But it looks now like a definite increase."

The numbers are even more worrisome because about 41 percent of the retirees are coming from the lab's nuclear-weapons groups and 13.5 percent are coming from threat-reduction groups - specialized areas that are part of Los Alamos' core mission, Rickman said.

"We're very concerned about losing people with such specialized knowledge," he said. "That sort of skill can't be taught in a university setting. There's no short course.

"We're trying to find ways so we can transfer some of those skills to new employees, but it's difficult."

Doug Roberts, who will retire July 1, says the exodus was probably caused in part by the shutdown of the lab between July and February. Pete Nanos, who was director then, shut the lab after reports of missing computer disks - which turned out to have never existed - and a laser accident.

That, coupled with management problems and uncertainty about which group will be running the lab when an operating contractor is chosen in December, has left many workers questioning their resolve to stay, Roberts said.

The contract for operating the lab is up for bid this year for the first time in the lab's 62-year history. A team led by Lockheed Martin Corp. and the University of Texas is competing against a team led by Bechtel Corp. and the University of California.

Roberts, 54, is the founder and operator of a blog, "LANL: The Real Story," where many lab scientists have been airing their concerns about the lab's turbulent past few years. The blog, which has had more than 210,000 visitors since January, is online at

"As a direct result of the shutdown last July we lost a lot of staff, and a lot of those were my colleagues," Roberts said. "In my group alone, I believe I'm the 12th person to announce he's leaving since that shutdown."

Roberts works in the Basic and Applied Simulation Science Group, which makes computer simulations of social networks. The group had about 20 employees before the spate of retirements, he said.

Roberts has already lined up work, and job hunting hasn't been a problem for him or any of his friends who have also retired this year, he said.

"I wasn't really ready to retire, so I'll be going to work for another company," Roberts said.

"I've decided I'll continue to maintain the blog," he said. "But I'm bringing in some help from other LANL employees. I don't feel non-lab people should maintain it."


Contact Sue Vorenberg of The Tribune in
Albuquerque, N.M., at

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