The new management team for Los Alamos National Laboratory represents a mix of continuity and change for the storied national security lab, which has been plagued by a series of safety mishaps in recent years.
A major leadership transition has officially begun at Los Alamos National Laboratory, the second largest of the Department of Energy’s 17 national labs. Located in in New Mexico, Los Alamos is the nation's premier center for nuclear weapons and nonproliferation R&D and also supports a broad portfolio of research spanning physics, materials science, advanced computing, biology, and climate modeling, among other disciplines.
Last month, DOE awarded the multi-billion dollar management contract for Los Alamos to Triad National Security LLC, a nonprofit partnership between the University of California, Texas A&M University, Battelle Memorial Institute, and several support contractors. None of the other bidders contested the decision, so DOE has given Triad the green light to proceed with taking over management of the lab.
Triad announced its senior leadership team for Los Alamos last week, revealing that former Oak Ridge National Laboratory Director Thom Mason will take the helm of the lab on Nov. 1 after a four-month transition period.
New leadership team has deep national lab experience
The new contract award brings fresh faces while retaining the institutional memory of the University of California, which has been involved in the operation of Los Alamos since its founding in 1943 as part of the Manhattan Project. The contract consists of a five-year base award with five one-year extension options, valued at about $2.5 billion per year.
The award represents an expansion of Battelle’s already sizable footprint in national lab management. The nonprofit organization is currently involved in the operation of six other DOE labs. It also represents the first time that any Texas university has been a coequal partner in managing this type of national lab. Texas A&M had previously partnered with Battelle on an unsuccessful bid to manage Sandia National Laboratories, DOE’s largest lab.
As the incoming director, Mason brings nearly two decades of national lab experience to the job. Prior to joining Battelle in 2017 as its senior vice president for global laboratory operations, Mason spent much of his career at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, including 10 years as its director.
The other members of the new senior lab leadership team are a mix of longtime Los Alamos employees and outside individuals with deep experience in the national lab system.
Robert Webster, who has spent nearly 30 years in Los Alamos’ weapons program, will continue to manage the weapons design, engineering, and production directorates. Similarly, John Sarrao, a materials scientist, will continue to manage directorates focused on mission-enabling science, technology, and engineering. The new head of lab operations, Kelly Beierschmitt, comes from Idaho National Laboratory. They will report directly to Mason in their roles as deputy directors.
An organization chart and information on additional members of the new leadership team can be found here.
Mason emphasizes need for continuity to preserve lab’s strengths
In a press event this week, Mason and Texas A&M University System Chancellor John Sharp discussed Triad’s bid for the contract.
Mason said DOE chose to recompete the contract after a series of safety mishaps “led to a loss of confidence on the part of the government” in the current management team. These included mishandling of plutonium and the explosion of an improperly packaged nuclear waste drum in 2014 that led to an extended and costly shutdown of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, a major disposal facility.
“Our proposal was built around where do we need to bring change … recognizing that there are significant activities at the lab that actually are very highly regarded and have gone well,” Mason said. He noted he plans to focus on understanding the lab’s culture and improving its operational processes. He also spoke to the importance of continuity with the previous management team:
If you came in and just said, ‘You know, this is all irretrievably broken, we’re going to sweep it away,’ you would run the risk of disrupting a very important mission at a time when it’s busier than it’s been for many, many years.
Los Alamos is expanding as the U.S. undertakes a major modernization of its nuclear stockpile and warhead delivery systems. The lab currently has about 12,000 employees, and Mason said it is projected to hire about 1,000 employees per year.
Mason observed that there is an acute nationwide shortage of safety engineers that design processes to ensure individuals who handle nuclear materials do not trigger chain reactions that generate dangerous radiation. Mason noted that even before Triad submitted a bid, Texas A&M started a program in its nuclear engineering department to train criticality safety engineers in partnership with Los Alamos.
Addressing suspicions that Energy Secretary Rick Perry’s status as an alumnus of Texas A&M swayed DOE toward picking Triad, Sharp insisted it had no bearing on the decision.
Mason also discussed the lab’s core mission of annually certifying to the president that warheads in the U.S. nuclear stockpile will perform as expected if employed. He noted how this job has been greatly complicated by the moratorium on explosive nuclear weapons testing that the U.S. has observed since 1992.
Mason likened the challenge to storing a Boeing 787 airplane that has never been flown in a hangar for 30 years and being confident it will fly on the first try. He explained how Los Alamos invests heavily in supercomputing and experimental facilities to assess how the nuclear stockpile is affected by aging. However, he also pointed out that ensuring the U.S. nuclear deterrent remains “safe, secure, and reliable” is only one facet of how the lab contributes to national security.
“It’s also being ready to anticipate the unexpected in the future. It’s what some people have called the deterrence of knowledge and understanding,” he said. “Given the changes in technology that are happening … what are the defense needs going to be 10, 20, 30 years down the road?”
Current lab director offers outlook
Prior to the contract announcement, FYI spoke with the current director of Los Alamos, geophysicist Terry Wallace, about current and future challenges facing the lab. Wallace became director in January 2018, taking over from Charlie McMillan, who had led the lab since 2011.
Wallace acknowledged Los Alamos “had some incidents which I certainly wish we had never had,” but also pointed out that the lab receives intense media scrutiny because of its storied past and its nuclear weapons mission.
“[The] narrative is as much about ‘are nuclear weapons something this country should be doing or not?’ So it’s impossible for anything to not be put in that prism,” Wallace said. “We’re constantly both under attack or overly praised because of our unique role in what that is.”
He also said the lab’s safety record is now “world class” by certain industry standards and is “extraordinary” when put into context with the kind of unique high hazard work done there.
Wallace weighed in on the recent proposal by DOE and the Department of Defense to split production of plutonium pits, the cores of nuclear weapons, between Los Alamos and the Savannah River Site in South Carolina. Currently, Los Alamos is the only place in the nation capable of producing these pits and is expanding its capacity to meet a statutory requirement to produce 80 pits per year by 2030 to replace aging ones installed in warheads. Under the proposal, Los Alamos would be responsible for producing at least 30 of the 80 pits per year.
Wallace said he supports the concept of having redundancy in pit production capacity, but added he believes that “looking at the announcement as the finality of this process is probably premature.” The proposal has drawn the ire of lawmakers in both states, with members of the New Mexico congressional delegation seeking to maintain Los Alamos as the sole production site and South Carolina officials seeking to save an in-construction plutonium reprocessing facility that would be abandoned as part of DOE’s proposal.
Wallace said he is confident Los Alamos will meet the target of producing 30 pits per year by 2026, but acknowledged the challenges of ramping up production. “If you have to focus on producing 30 or 80 pits per year, does that take free energy out of the system? I think you can manage that, but it has to be managed extraordinarily well,” he said.
Asked what advice he would give the next director, Wallace said he expects that science will become increasingly important to national security, but its relevance more “dispersed” across disciplines. He indicated that the concept of strategic deterrence must evolve beyond simply maintaining nuclear weapons to better encompass other types of threats.
“The next set of directors is going to have to rebuild that jigsaw of what national security with deterrence means, and nuclear will wane in that problem,” he said.