SANTA FE – Los Alamos National Laboratory will soon be under direction of a home town boy — Terry Wallace, who grew up in Los Alamos, worked at the lab as an undergraduate student and has held various high-ranking positions at LANL since 2003.
The lab announced Tuesday that Wallace will become the 75-year-old lab’s 11th director — and the first actually from Los Alamos — as of Jan. 1, succeeding retiring director Charles McMillan. He takes over at a time when the lab faces scrutiny over safety issues and as the LANL and is transitioning to a new operating contract.
“This is my family,” Wallace, 61, said of LANL in an interview. “All 11,000-plus employees are my family, the weird uncles and all.”
Wallace was chosen for the lab’s top job by the board of Los Alamos National Security, LLC (LANS), the private consortium including the University of California and the Bechtel corporation that has manages the lab since 2006. He also will be the new president of LANS.
“Terry’s expertise in forensic seismology, a highly-specialized discipline, makes him an acknowledged international authority on the detection and quantification of nuclear tests,” said Norman J. Pattiz, LANS board chairman, in a news release.
Wallace becomes lab director as the U.S. Department of Energy has put the $2.5 billion-a-year LANL management contract out for bid, with the winner of the competition taking over next October.
LANS failed to gain a contract extension beyond the current fiscal year after receiving inadequate performance reviews, particularly after a drum of radioactive waste improperly packed with a combustible mix at Los Alamos breached at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant at Carlsbad in 2014. The contamination caused a costly shutdown at the nation’s nuclear waste repository.
The lab also has had a series of lesser safety issues recently, including improperly shipping radioactive material on a commercial cargo plane and a “criticality safety event” when too much plutonium was placed in one location.
“No accident is acceptable. They are avoidable. We have to do better,” said Wallace, adding, “I also think that the context is also important.” He said LANL is “by far” the largest and most complex of the national labs. “There is no other facility or set of facilities that looks like our plutonium facility,” he said.
“It would be wrong from me to say we don’t have a safety problem, because we have issues,” said Wallace. “But in fact I think we have a remarkably good path forward,” as the lab works on what he called a “learning safety culture.”
Currently, Wallace serves as the lab’s principal associate director for Global Security and leads programs with a focus on applying scientific and engineering capabilities to addressing national and global security threats, in particular nuclear threats.
A frequent lab critic wasn’t impressed with Wallace’s history at LANL. “Wallace is a lab good ol’ boy,” said Jay Coghlan of Nuclear Watch New Mexico. “He’ll no doubt have his hand out for more taxpayer dollars for more nuclear weapons programs on the Hill , plus his own pet billion dollar boondoggles.”
Wallace said “99.9 percent” of LANL employees are dedicated to LANL’s mission of “solving really hard problems associated with the nation’s security.
“I appreciate that,” Wallace said. “… I could not do my job without the technician that I get from Mora or the scientist we may get as a post-doc from UNM.”
He said he doesn’t know how long he’s be director with a new operating contract set to be awarded, but that he’ll be in place to work through any transition to a new contractor.
Wallace is the son of the late lab staffer Terry Wallace Sr. and the late Jeannette Wallace, a long-serving Republican member of the state House of Representatives. And he’s a 1974 graduate of Los Alamos High School (he was actually was born in Iowa, where his father was completing PhD work during a short stint away from Los Alamos).
Wallace first worked at LANL as a student in 1975. Before returning to the lab in 2003, he spent 20 years as a professor with the University of Arizona with appointments to both the Geoscience Department and the Applied Mathematics Program.
Wallace served as LANL’s principal associate director for Science, Technology, and Engineering from 2006 to 2011 and as associate director of Strategic Research from 2005 to 2006.
In those positions, he integrated expertise from all basic science programs and five science and engineering organizations to support LANL’s nuclear-weapons, threat-reduction, and national-security missions, the lab’s news release said.
“I may have gone and been an academic for 20 years and everything else,” Wallace said Tuesday, “but this is the only place that’s home to me.”
Wallace holds PhD and master’s degrees in geophysics from California Institute of Technology and bachelor’s degrees in geophysics and mathematics from New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology.