Friday, May 27, 2011
New Director Named for Los Alamos Lab
By John Fleck
Journal Staff Writer
A 56-year-old nuclear weapons program veteran will take over the helm of Los Alamos National Laboratory next week, inheriting a tradition that goes back to the famed tenure of physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer.
"This laboratory is rich with history, full of intellectual vitality, and singularly endowed with an innovative spirit," said Charles McMillan in a statement issued Thursday afternoon after officials announced his selection as the lab's new director.
McMillan succeeds Michael Anastasio on June 1 to head the northern New Mexico institution that designed and built the first atom bomb and that today bears major responsibility for building and maintaining the U.S. nuclear arsenal.
McMillan currently serves as the lab's principal associate director overseeing nuclear weapons work.
He came to Los Alamos in 2006 from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Among his previous assignments, he oversaw Livermore's refurbishment of the W80 nuclear warhead, one of the first of the U.S. government's post-Cold War efforts to extend the life of its aging nuclear arsenal.
McMillan, through a lab spokesman, declined interview requests, saying he wanted to speak directly to lab employees before talking to the media.
But in his statement, McMillan said he was "truly honored and thrilled" to take the helm at Los Alamos.
The lab was founded in 1943 when Oppenheimer, a physicist, assembled a team on the Pajarito Plateau of northern New Mexico in a top secret World War II effort to build an atomic bomb.
Today, Los Alamos, with an annual budget of about $2.5 billion, employs nearly 12,000 people. The Obama administration has asked Congress for a 19 percent increase in spending at Los Alamos for nuclear weapons research and development next year.
While enjoying a budget that is likely to grow, McMillan also takes over as the lab faces significant challenges. The Obama administration has made construction of a new plutonium research building a priority, but the project is plagued by rising costs and criticism.
The most recent estimate puts the project's cost at $3.7 billion to $5.8 billion, a fourfold to sevenfold increase over the estimated price just four years ago.
New Mexico political leaders praised the decision.
"In the five years Charlie McMillan has spent at Los Alamos National Laboratory, he has more than ably led the weapons program," Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., said in a statement.
"He has the science background and leadership expertise to ensure the continued excellence of the multiple mission of the lab. I look forward to working with him in the coming months."
"Charlie has a long and distinguished list of credentials and most importantly, the scientific background needed to lead LANL into the future," Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., said in a statement.
McMillan was chosen in a process that considered 150 nominations and applications, according to a message to Los Alamos employees Thursday afternoon from Norman Pattiz, chairman of the board of Los Alamos National Security LLC, the Bechtel-University of California partnership that manages Los Alamos for the federal government.
"We strongly believe that Charlie is the most qualified candidate to lead the Laboratory at this critical time," Pattiz wrote.