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Los Alamos and the missing discs that never were

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The hunt for a missing pair of computer discs said to contain classified information at a key US nuclear weapons research lab has turned into a near farce this week after it emerged the discs may never have existed.

The discs' supposed disappearance resulted in an unprecedented shut-down of classified work at Los Alamos National Laboratory, New Mexico over the last four weeks. This shut down was supposed to facilitate an intensification of a search for what may turn out to be a mirage.

After touring Los Alamos on Monday, Republican Senator Pete Domenici put out a statement saying the lab's inventory system was in such a mess it was impossible to say whether the discs were missing or not. Their 'disappearance' could easily be explained by a "false positive" in a failing inventory system.

“I will tell you that whether or not the discs were missing, Los Alamos’ system of tracking its classified inventory is clearly a mess if we cannot tell if classified material is missing. The first thing an inventory system has to be able to do is tell what materials we have and what material is missing," said Senator Domenici, the chairman of Senate’s Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee.

“It may be that what we have here is a false positive—the system says something is missing when it is not. And just as if it were a medical test, it is better to find out the inventory was wrong than that the discs were actually missing. But this entire situation only reinforces that we need to improve the inventory system."

Two anonymous sources told AP that it was likely that the two discs never existed. Two spare labels on a sheet of 20 left over after labelling 18 discs could be responsible for the confusion, AP reports.

Neither the Federal Bureau of Investigation nor the Department of Energy are commenting so it’s unclear if the search at Los Alamos, and the suspension of classified work that has accompanied it, will go on much longer. Meanwhile 19 workers in the Los Alamos' Weapons Physics Directorate lab remain under suspension.

Pete Stockton, a senior investigator for the Project on Government Oversight, a watchdog group critical of the management of Los Alamos, questioned why it is taking so long to pin the problem down. "It makes no sense to me. This theory was floated about a week ago, and it didn't stick. It doesn't seem plausible," Stockton told AP.

The incident is the latest in a series of security shortcomings at Los Alamos - birthplace of the world's first atomic bomb - that have raised questions about the competence of its management. Keys to a sensitive area went missing for most of a day in June. In May, classified material was reported missing but managers later concluded it was intentionally destroyed.

The US government has opened up bids to manage Los Alamos after the University of California's contract expires next year. It's the first time in Los Alamos' 61-year history that this has happened and a sign of Federal discontent over how the facility is currently been run. ®

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