Brookhaven Lab Operators Given Pink Slip

Energy Secretary Federico Peña said yesterday that he will terminate the department's contract with the operator of Brookhaven National Laboratory, Associated Universities Inc. (AUI). During a visit to the Upton, New York, laboratory, Peña accused AUI of long-term mismanagement of the facility, which has been plagued with a host of environmental and safety problems during the past decade--most recently a tritium leak from a reactor.

Peña's decision marked the first time that the Department of Energy (DOE) has canceled a major lab contract with cause. "The combination of confusion and mismanagement that has been occurring here over the years is going to end," he told a gathering of Brookhaven employees. "It is unacceptable, inexcusable, and flat-out wrong." That's not how AUI board chair Paul Martin, dean of Harvard University's engineering school, sees it. Peña's decision, he told ScienceNOW, is "precipitous and probably unwise."

Brookhaven, which has more than 3000 employees and an annual budget of $400 million, is home to several major DOE facilities, including the High Flux Beam Reactor--one of the nation's premier neutron-scattering centers--and two major synchrotrons that are used for a host of materials, biology, and medical research experiments. The reactor is now shut down while technicians examine the source of the tritium leak, which has spread in a plume in ground water underneath the lab grounds. DOE officials now believe there has been a continuous leak for more than a decade, although they say it does not threaten Long Island drinking water. This and other environmental problems have enraged community activists, who complain that Brookhaven managers have misled them over the years. Peña acknowledged yesterday that the lab has lost public trust, and he also criticized DOE for failing to act on the problems at Brookhaven.

AUI's contract will not be terminated until a new contractor is chosen, which probably will take 6 months, says Martha Krebs, DOE energy research chief. In the meantime, "we will work aggressively to set Brookhaven on a course toward a new culture," pledges Lyle Schwartz, who is both AUI president and interim lab director. He declined to say whether AUI plans to bid for the new contract.