Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – At a meeting attended by some 700 representatives of construction firms from around the country Thursday, plans for different kind of explosion – a building and hiring boom – were described for Los Alamos National Laboratory.
Lab officials provided details of $5 billion worth of building plans over the next five years and $13 billion over the next decade, driven largely by the lab’s assignment to ramp up production of plutonium cores for nuclear weapons.
They also told the crowd at Pojoaque Pueblo’s Buffalo Thunder Casino and Resort that there’s a need for capital improvements away from the lab, to help serve a growing LANL workforce.
One slide showed a potential whole new highway connecting N.M. 4 off of lab property to Santa Fe via a new bridge over the Rio Grande south of White Rock and through the Caja del Rio area west of Santa Fe, with a possible link to Interstate 25 south of town. It would reduce commute times from Albuquerque as well as Santa Fe.
Another slide shown to the contractors mapped planned housing projects in Los Alamos.
LANL Director Thomas Mason, in an interview Friday, said the lab currently has 1,400 openings and has been hiring about 1,000 people annually over the past several years, with about 500 each year placed in new job slots as opposed to replacing retirees or others who’ve left the lab.
Mason said LANL provides about 12,000 jobs now and should add 1,200 more by 2026, by which time the lab is supposed to be producing 30 plutonium “pits” for warheads annually.
The expansion in capital improvements and hiring have “already been in progress, there’s been work going on, but it’s ramping up significantly over the next several years,” Mason said.
“A lot of our infrastructure is aging,” he said. “The lab celebrated its 75th anniversary last year, which is a wonderful milestone, but you know some of those facilities that were built up in the Cold War era are no longer state of the art, and so we’re doing work to replace them.”
Proposed building improvements, including two new parking garages, and workforce expansion depend on future federal appropriations year to year. “So you never know,” Mason said.
“It’s a busy time at the lab,” he said. “We’re probably busier than we have been since the height of the Cold War.”
Mason said $3 billion in spending is planned for improvements to the lab’s existing plutonium facility for the pit work. An accelerator project and a new-generation super computer also will require major investments.
Roadwork discussed in Thursday’s presentation would be the responsibility of surrounding communities or the state, Mason noted. But he said the lab is stressing the importance of transportation infrastructure and needs to communicate to the region about the lab’s growth projections.
The existing traffic situation sometimes seems more like Los Angeles than Los Alamos, he said. Sixty percent of lab employees live outside Los Alamos County, Mason said.
One piece of transportation infrastructure – Omega Bridge, which connects the town of Los Alamos with the lab site over Los Alamos Canyon – is owned by the federal government. It was also part of the Thursday presentation. One slide shows the bridge converted to a “greenway” with a new bridge added nearby. Mason said what to do with the bridge is a long-term issue.
Asked about potential economic impact of the building and hiring plans on northern New Mexico, Mason noted that a recent University of New Mexico study said LANL’s current activities generate $3 billion in economic activity in the state. The new work will just add to that, he said.
Not everyone wants to see the lab grow.
Greg Mello, a frequent lab critic with the Albuquerque-based Los Alamos Study Group, said “everywhere pit production has been done, in every country, has been an environmental disaster.”
Pits were formerly made at Rocky Flats in Colorado, which was shut down in the early 1990s amid an environmental scandal.
“We think it’s the wrong direction for this region,” Mello said.
Mello, who attended the Thursday meeting and told the Journal about it, said there was a “gold rush mentality” among attendees.
The Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), which oversees the nation’s nuclear weapons labs, is under a mandate from Congress and the Department of Defense to make 80 pits a year by 2030 as part of a massive plan to modernize the nation’s nuclear weapons arsenal.
Only a handful have been produced in recent decades, all of them at Los Alamos. NNSA’s plan calls for making 30 pits a year at Los Alamos and 50 pits a year at DOE’s Savannah River Site in South Carolina.
A recent congressionally funded study cast doubts on whether the pit production goals can be met and questioned the overall plan to ramp up U.S. pit production, which is estimated to cost $14 billion to $28 billion, saying that “eventual success of the strategy to reconstitute plutonium pit production is far from certain.”