Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – Los Alamos National Laboratory’s workforce, budget and value of contracts with New Mexico small businesses all increased in the past fiscal year, due partly to efforts to modernize the nation’s nuclear deterrent.
That was the message lab Director Thom Mason delivered to community members in a Zoom meeting last week.
The lab budget for the fiscal year that concluded in September was just over $4 billion, compared to $3.2 billion the previous year, he said, calling the increase significant.
“Our core mission of course is the nuclear deterrent and there is a lot of work underway to modernize (that) … deterrent,” Mason said. “The deterrent we have now was largely built in the 80s and it needs to be refreshed.”
One hundred people logged in to the event and some asked questions by email, according to LANL, which is operated by the Triad National Security consortium.
One audience question was why LANL was spending a reported $20 billion on the “pit” production program.
The lab is tasked with much more than producing additional nuclear pits, the softball-sized cores of an implosion nuclear weapon, Mason said. A little more than 70% of the LANL budget goes to the lab’s nuclear weapons deterrent program.
The current pits were all built in the 1980s “and, just like every other component of that deterrent, they are subject to aging and, at some point in time, they need to be replaced and, (since) this country hasn’t been manufacturing pits at scale since the 80s, that’s now something we have to resume,” he said.
Setting a record in 2021 was the $419 million in contracts awarded to New Mexico businesses, said Mason, noting, “That’s a new high … it’s likely to continue growing and most of those businesses were small businesses.”
LANL had 13,512 employees at fiscal year’s end, with 1,277 new employees added over the year – also a record – but some of those employees replaced retiring workers. The lab is expecting to hire more people. “We have over 800 open positions right now,” said Mason.
“Obviously, I think people kind of associate the lab with scientists and engineers. That’s what we do, but, in order to do that, you need a wide range of skills, including 1,200 craft employees, people with expertise in communication, human resources and finances, as well as the scientists, engineers and technicians, to carry out our important work.”
The LANL payroll for the year was $1.2 billion, Mason said. For the new fiscal year that began Oct. 1, “we could hire as many as 2,000 people; we’ll see how it goes through the year,” said Mason, noting that the average annual lab salary is $123,000.
Mason also highlighted the lab’s role in the COVID-19 pandemic: “We’ve been using our capabilities, our research staff, our facilities, our super computers to better understand the virus, to try and predict and model the spread of the virus so that communities, including here in New Mexico, can be prepared …,” he said.
“Our COVID-19 model is used by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention … (and) we have also been working very closely with the New Mexico Department of Health.”