It's not the theft of secret nuclear-bomb data that should worry politicians. The big secret of the bomb is that half a century after Hiroshima, there is no secret, whatever the reality is behind disputed reports of China receiving computer codes stolen from the bomb-designing Los Alamos National Laboratory.

The real problem is the chief custodian of the American bomb industry, the U.S. Department of Energy, a legendary sinkhole of bungling and confusion that long ago outlived its original purpose. Ironically, some of the country's top scientists and research managers work for the department, but are embedded in an ironbound system that defies reform.Nuclear espionage, if such occurred, could speed the sophistication of China's nuclear arsenal. But with or without stolen data, China is capable of advancing on its own, as have other members of the nuclear club.

The theft stories - and DOE's shifting and contradictory responses - are simply another episode in the history of America's most dysfunctional department of government. Except, that is, in its role as the pre-eminent pork barrel of national politics.

DOE dispenses $18 billion a year to 11,000 employees of its own, plus 118,000 contractor employees, and 50 facilities in 35 states. Among them is the Los Alamos laboratory. It's often recommended for severe shrinkage or even termination as an obsolete leftover from the cold war, but is politically immortal because of the $1 billion a year it provides for impoverished New Mexico.

The laboratory survives as a peculiar hybrid of classified bomb work, university-style basic science, and desperate hustling for commercial industrial research contracts.

Bomb research also thrives at the rival Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, despite repeated recommendations for merging the weapons work of the two facilities.

If change could be wrought by shocking reports from blue-ribbon panels and hard-nosed government auditors, DOE would long ago have been reorganized out of existence, with its important functions distributed to government agencies that competently manage research.

From 1980 through 1996, the General Accounting Office recently reported, the department squandered $10 billion on 31 projects that were terminated before completion. Among its surviving projects, the GAO found, ''27 had cost overruns averaging over 70 percent and 16 were behind schedule.''

DOE's legacy of aborted projects includes nearly $3 billion expended on the Superconducting Super Collider, terminated by Congress in 1993 after cost estimates rose from $5.9 billion to $11 billion and the foreign money promised by DOE never materialized.

The GAO noted that, ''For years, DOE's culture encouraged employees to complete projects but not to question the need for them or to raise management issues.''

In 1995, a DOE-commissioned study chaired by Robert Galvin, former chief executive of Motorola, recommended new management methods, consolidations and goals for the department's vast research empire. Four years later, the GAO found, DOE's laboratory directors conceded that no significant changes had occurred.

The GAO added that experts in DOE affairs were almost unanimously pessimistic about the potential for change. One was quoted as saying, ''DOE's organization is a mess. You cannot tell who is the boss.'' The GAO concluded that ''fundamental change remains an elusive goal'' at DOE.

Each new energy secretary arrives with pledges of reform that almost invariably go unfulfilled. The current secretary, former New Mexico Congressman Bill Richardson, is said to have further elective ambitions in the state - a comforting circumstance for the Los Alamos laboratory.

DOE secretaries come and go, often quickly. Mr. Richardson's predecessor, Federico Pena, lasted for 15 months.

The immunity to change in the department can be traced to a long run of strategically placed legislators with hometown reasons to keep the agency and its laboratories alive and rich.

At present, Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., chairs the Appropriation subcommittee that votes money for DOE, and he's also the ranking Republican on the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, which holds law-writing authority for energy research. Sen. Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico is the ranking Democrat on Energy and Natural Resources.

The reports of data theft, by a Los Alamos scientist long under suspicion, have evoked pious recrimination and new, stultifying security regulations. Everyone involved is hopped up and calling for reform.

The problem that really needs attention is the senseless permanence of the DOE dinosaur.

For the full story: Log In, Register for Free or Subscribe