SANTA FE — Charles F. (Charlie) McMillan, the 10th person to lead Los Alamos National Laboratory, has announced he will retire at the end of the year.
“It has truly been an honor and a privilege to serve as your director these past six years,” he said at an all-employees meeting Tuesday morning, according to the lab. “Every day, I have been in awe of the people of this great laboratory and what we have been able to contribute to this nation’s security.”
In an interview at his office inside LANL’s security perimeter later in the day, he told the Journal he was reminded anew of the lab’s importance by news reports over the weekend about North Korea’s test explosion of a hydrogen bomb.
“The lab does stuff that actually matters,” he said. LANL personnel helped analyze the seismic aftermath of the blast.
And he said nuclear deterrence has worked for 70 years. “It helps provide stability,” he said.
McMillan’s tenure was marked by a major, costly mishap caused by a technical lapse at the lab. A waste drum that had been improperly packed with a combustible mix at LANL — organic kitty litter was improperly added in with nitrates to absorb liquid, instead of the proper clay-based litter — breached while stored at the nation’s nuclear waste storage facility near Carlsbad in February 2014.
Resulting radioactive contamination shut the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, causing waste backups throughout the nation’s nuclear weapons complex sites and resulting in millions of dollars of clean-up costs. The incident is among those critics have cited over the years in arguing that LANL has a “culture” of carelessness.
McMillan, who previously worked for more than two decades at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, said he’s never seen a large organization that’s completely perfect and that LANL isn’t either.
But he said he would “beg to differ with people who say we don’t get it.” In the WIPP incident, he said, the issue was not getting “project management” and the appropriate science together.
The error has been blamed on a typographical error where “organic” was written down instead of “inorganic” for the required kind of absorbent cat litter. Basic chemistry would have dictated keeping the wheat-based organic litter away from the nitrates in the transuranic waste barrel.
LANL has been run since 2006 by private consortium Los Alamos National Security LLC (LANS) — which includes Bechtel, the University of California, Babcock and Wilcox, and URS Energy and Construction. McMillan is also CEO of LANS.
In recent years, LANS failed to receive adequate performance reviews, particularly for the year of the WIPP accident, from the U.S. Department of Energy that were needed for LANS to hold onto the more than $2 billion annual Los Alamos lab operating contract.
In late 2015, DOE decided to rebid the contract. The federal government is in the process of soliciting proposals from interested bidders for a new contract to go into effect in about a year.
McMillan wouldn’t comment when asked if he believed LANS got a fair shake in the critical evaluations from DOE. He directed questions about that to the feds.
The watchdog Nuclear Watch New Mexico said of McMillan’s departure: “There’s got to be a whole lot more behind this abrupt resignation.… He’s the poster child for why the profit motive should not run nuclear weapons facilities. Here’s hoping for better LANL management next time.” The lab listed McMillan’s total compensation at $1.5 million in a 2013 federal disclosure report. A LANL spokesman said the total included pension value.
U.S. Rep. Ben Lujan, D-N.M., said in a statement, “I want to thank Dr. McMillan for his years of committed, dedicated leadership in support of the national security mission and world class scientific work that is performed at LANL.”
McMillan also said Tuesday that there’s no “either/or choice” between Los Alamos’ nuclear weapons mission and other science that the lab undertakes, with the science supporting the defense mission and scientific advancements resulting from weapons work.
He told lab employees, “Our work to advance analytical capabilities with the new Trinity supercomputer, our experimental capabilities at Los Alamos and at the National Nuclear Security Site in Nevada and our cutting-edge research in materials science have strengthened our nuclear weapons and global security mission work and paved the way for an enduring future for Los Alamos National Laboratory.”