SAN FRANCISCO, Jan. 2 (UPI) -- The director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory abruptly resigned amid a new controversy over purchasing practices and was replaced by a former military officer with a long history of involvement in strategic weapons programs, the University of California announced Thursday.
Retired Vice Adm. George "Pete" Nanos was named interim director following the departure of John Browne and the lab's top deputy director, Joseph Salgado, who also resigned amid allegations of missing equipment and millions of dollars worth of unauthorized purchases made by employees of the New Mexico nuclear weapons lab.
The university system, which runs the lab on behalf of the federal government, did not assign any specific blame for the budding scandal to Browne, whose resignation was submitted Dec. 23 and takes effect Jan. 6.
"Director Browne deserves full credit for recognizing that recent allegations regarding LANL business practices were distracting from his many accomplishments and the work of the laboratory's extraordinary scientific community," Chancellor Richard Atkinson said in a release.
A principle duty of the Los Alamos lab is maintaining the integrity of U.S. nuclear arms as well as cutting-edge research into reducing foreign nuclear threats and the environmental legacies of Cold War arsenals.
Los Alamos, however, has been plagued by high-profile scandals in recent years, including the misplacement of computer hard drives packed with classified nuclear weapons information in 2000 and the 1999 espionage probe of scientist Wen Ho Lee.
The latest controversy stemmed from an audit released last month that concluded that nearly $5 million in purchases made on employee credit cards were questionable or had not been processed correctly. In November, whistleblowers alleged that $1.3 million worth of computers and other equipment had gone missing from the facility.
Atkinson and Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham met in December to discuss the alleged shortcomings at Los Alamos. The Department of Energy said in a press release Thursday that Abraham told the chancellor that "a systemic management failure" appeared to exist at the lab.
"The nation needs the same confidence in the business management and security at Los Alamos as it has in the Laboratory's weapons design and basic science," Abraham noted in Thursday's statement.
In his resignation letter, Browne said he had instituted a number of changes to the lab's operations and business practices, and that he regretted "that all the needed changes did not come fast enough to prevent the current procurement situation."
Atkinson said Browne chose to step down from the post he held since 1997 "in order to make way for new leadership as a major step toward restoring confidence in the laboratory's business practices."
Atkinson also had high praise for Nanos, a Ph.D. in physics who had been an associate director of the Threat Reduction Directorate at Los Alamos and formerly was in charge of the Navy's nuclear weapons program.
"In Pete Nanos, Los Alamos gains a talented and experienced interim leader who will carry on the tradition of outstanding science and technology in service to our nation's security that has been the hallmark of the laboratory since the Manhattan Project," said Atkinson.
Nanos' most recent Navy command was the Naval Sea Systems Command, which oversees seven Navy laboratories as well as shipyards capable of servicing nuclear-powered warships.
(Reported by Hil Anderson in Los Angeles)