SAN FRANCISCO - The nation's top nuclear weapons design lab has laid off hundreds of workers, raising concerns about a brain drain and stirring fears that some of these highly specialized scientists will sell their expertise to foreign governments, perhaps hostile ones.
Because of budget cuts and higher costs, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory laid off 440 employees May 22 and 23. Over the past 2 1/2 years, attrition and layoffs have reduced the workforce of 8,000 by about 1,800 altogether.
According to a list obtained by the Associated Press, about 60 of the recently laid-off workers were engineers, roughly 30 were physicists, and about 15 were chemists. Some, but not all, were involved in nuclear weapons work or nonproliferation efforts, and all had put in at least 20 years at the lab.
Some lawmakers and others said they fear the loss of important institutional knowledge about designing warheads and detecting whether other countries are going nuclear.
Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, said the layoffs at Lawrence Livermore and two other big US weapons labs represent "a national security danger point." These unemployed experts might take their skills overseas, she said.
"The fact is, these are all people who are human; they have homes, they have families, they have educations to pay for," she said. "And I very much worry where they go for their next job."
The possibility is also on the mind of the nation's top nuclear weapons official, Tom D'Agostino, National Nuclear Security Administration chief.
"Always in a situation where people leave under less-than-ideal circumstances, we worry about that, and it's something I assure you we're looking at closely," D'Agostino said. "I'm always concerned about the counterintelligence part of our mission, and we have an active program to go make sure we understand where we're vulnerable and where we're not."
Asked to elaborate, Bryan Wilkes, National Nuclear Security Administration spokesman, said the agency is "always on guard for foreign entities approaching our employees, active or retired, but it's their responsibility to alert us to those circumstances."
The agency is aware of no instance in which a US nuclear weapons scientist had gone to work overseas, he said.