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Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
The new director of Los Alamos National Laboratory says that, along with the lab’s nuclear weapons missions, its science and engineering efforts, and upgrading operational functions, community relations will be a key piece of LANL’s agenda under new operator Triad National Security, LLC.
“Because if you lose the trust and confidence of the communities in which you’re located, you’ll find pretty quickly that you can’t get anything done, because you lose the support that you need,” said Thomas Mason, a former director at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee who took over at LANL on Nov. 1.
Triad is a nonprofit that includes the University of California, Texas A&M University and Ohio-based Battelle Memorial Institute, a huge scientific nonprofit that has been involved in other national labs’ operations and where Mason previously served as an executive.
Triad, awarded the $2 billion-plus annual LANL management contract last year by the nuclear security wing of the U.S. Department of Energy, succeeds a more corporate-based private consortium that included the University of California, Bechtel and other private partners. That group had faced mounting criticism, locally and in Washington, D.C., for operational and safety failures.
In a wide-ranging interview with the Journal’s editorial board last month, Mason talked about working with New Mexico educational institutions on training for lab jobs, LANL’s mission to ramp up production of plutonium cores for nuclear weapons known as “pits” and dealing with critics of the lab’s nuclear weapons activities.
“There are probably some people who are never going to like what we do because they don’t like nuclear weapons, which is actually understandable,” said Mason. “It is kind of a weird thing to be working really hard on something you really hope will never be used.”
“I get it” that nuclear weapons are “pretty horrific things,” he said. But Mason added that “the relative stability and security that’s been realized since the second World War” provides a counter-argument. “I’m happy to have that discussion,” Mason said.
A broader issue, he said, is “the question of trust and engagement” with communities in New Mexico. “It’s not so much ‘Do I like your mission, do I approve of your mission or not,’ it’s more ‘Do I trust you, are you doing something harmful to the environment or to my children’ or something like that,” he said
“And there is where I think it’s important to have the trust, so that when you say something, people believe you.”
While much of the work at Los Alamos involves classified information that can’t be disclosed, that doesn’t mean the lab’s management can’t discuss issues such as environmental concerns over “what’s in the air, what’s in the water,” he said.
“I can answer your question truthfully and I’m going to give you all the information I can, up to the point where I say I’m not going to tell you how to design nuclear weapons.”
Mason said that given the nature of the LANL’s work, which includes handling plutonium for weapons production, and development and testing of high explosives, there will always be questions about the lab’s impact. “So if you don’t have the kind of reservoir of confidence that you’re truthful, then you will never be able to work through those issues,” he said.
Mason said LANL hires 1,000 people a year to replace outgoing employees and for growth of lab programs, amid a shortage of applicants with relevant training. He said Triad will work closely with New Mexico education institutions on how to fill positions. Northern New Mexico College in Rio Arriba County already has a program to train radiological technicians who monitor radiation levels. Also, Texas A&M has a major extension program for jobs training “that we are hoping to piggyback on as much as we can,” Mason said.
He said about 25 percent of the lab’s 12,000 jobs are for Ph.D. scientists and engineers, and are filled by nationwide recruiting. The other 75 percent are of “every conceivable skill level” where a regional base is expected to provide workers.
LANL is under orders to produce about 30 new plutonium pits a year by 2026, a huge project. The U.S. manufactured thousands of pits during the Cold War at the old Rocky Flats facility in Colorado. No new pits have been made since 2011, when LANL completed the last of 29 for Navy submarine missiles. The most ever made at Los Alamos in a year is 11.
While past government studies, and skeptics of costly and potentially hazardous renewed pit production say existing pits can last many decades longer without compromising weapons reliability, Mason said the pits in the nation’s nuclear weapons stockpile “are already older in many cases than they were ever designed to be.”
“And as they age, they change and you don’t want to get into a situation where that undermines your confidence in the stockpile.” During the Cold War, he said, “people never gave much thought to what would happen to a 40-, 50-, 60-, 70-year-old pit because there was no such thing.”
With nuclear weapons test explosions now banned, computer simulations and other experiments are used for “stockpile stewardship” to ensure nuclear weapons are operational.
Asked if he was saying new pits were necessary to help assure the safety and reliability of nuclear weapons, Mason likened the situation to putting a Boeing 747 airliner in a hangar for 40 years, allowing it to be exposed to differing weather and environmental conditions, and then trying to feel safe about getting on board for a flight when the plane is pulled out of storage.
In the case of nuclear weapons, he said, there are radiological materials and “some pretty nasty chemicals” around that can change over time or become corrosive.
He said part of the job of the lab is to be totally confident that a bomb will work if needed and will not go off accidentally. “That requires a much more detailed understanding than it actually did to design the thing in the first place,” he said.
This is “not a situation you want to be in if you’re living in a world where some of our adversaries are getting pretty muscular in terms of their actions, are remanufacturing components on a regular basis in ways we aren’t at the moment.”
Mason said the directors of the country’s major weapons labs must certify annually that the weapons stockpile is safe, secure and reliable; there’s no need to resume nuclear weapons test explosions; that the testing tools the labs have are adequate; and that if test explosions could be undertaken if need be.
“That makes the world a safer place,” he said. “It’s worthy thing to work on.”
Past safety issues
Mason said that the Department of Energy was clear when it rebid the LANL operating contract that a “series of operational upsets” under Los Alamos National Security LCC, lab operator since 2006, had caused a loss of confidence in the lab.
He cited LANL’s improper packing of a radioactive waste drum that breached at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant at Carlsbad, shutting down the nation’s only nuclear waste storage site; a pause in operations at the Los Alamos plutonium facility because of safety issues; and LANL’s violation of safety protocols when a package of plutonium material was sent cross-country using a commercial air cargo service.
“When you see a whole series of high-consequence events occurring at different locations around a facility, it sort of gives you pause to say, ‘Wait a minute. Is this organization learning from when things don’t unfold the way you expect, and correcting and improving over time?’ ”
He said the lab needs to have a “learning culture” where employees “feel comfortable kind of saying, ‘OK, this doesn’t make sense. Let’s stop for a minute and understand it.’ ”
Another issue is having operating procedures “that a human can actually follow,” Mason said. He said it’s possible to write procedures that meet all criteria, “but no one can understand.”