BY MAIRE O’NEILL
Answering some 26 questions and speaking for almost 90 minutes Thursday evening, Los Alamos National Laboratory Thom Mason addressed everything from plutonium pits to the pandemic during a Webex community meeting attended by more than 100 people.
Mason said that as a national laboratory, LANL is primarily a national security lab.
“That’s the mission that we’re given by the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration and Congress through the authorizations and appropriations and we are making excellent progress on the work we do supporting deterrent – we call that stockpile stewardship,” he said. “This includes efforts to develop new supercomputers, such as what will be our next supercomputer that we are in the process of procuring called Crossroads. That will enhance our capability to assess and certify the nuclear stockpile without needing to resort to underground testing.”
He said LANL has been enhancing the experimental capabilities that support the modeling and simulating the Lab does on supercomputers, that provides the essential validation that means the supercomputers aren’t just doing video games, they’re actually modeling reality.
“An important and growing part of our mission is ensuring that the diverse needs of our plutonium are met. In fact we got some good news on this yesterday. We received notification that the next phase of the funding of infrastructure to support one part of that plutonium mission, the manufacture of pits, has as received the Critical Decision 1 approval that allows that investment in our infrastructure to proceed and to detail design,” Mason said. “Of course it’s not just pits, we do other plutonium work including providing the plutonium source that’s used to power the Mars rover that everyone was so excited to watch over the last several weeks since it landed on the surface of Mars in February.”
He went on to discuss the work being done to modernize LANL facilities noting that many of them may have been state of the art when they were built but now need to be renovated or replaced with new facilities. He said the Lab also does important national security work – not just supporting the nuclear deterrent but non-proliferation and support for arms control agreements – which is another side of the Lab’s mission.
Mason said the Lab is projecting around $3.7 billion in funding for the current fiscal year which he said is certainly a record year in terms of funding.
“Projections going forward actually level off,” he said. “There’s been a fairly significant increase in funding over the last couple of years to get us to the level needed to support the assessment and certification of the stockpile, the supercomputer, and some of the infrastructure including the infrastructure for pits.
He said it’s always a little dangerous to make predictions without future budgets because that depends obviously on the priorities of the new administration and what actions Congress takes.
“But in terms of the planning basis, we’re anticipating that the work that’s on our plate at the moment will largely be accomplished within the overall budget numbers that we actually achieved in the current fiscal year. So we’re not expecting as much growth in the budget in the future although the hiring tracks that we have been on and the investments in infrastructure will continue under the envelope of the funding levels we have at the moment,” Mason said.
He noted that the Lab currently has more than 13,000 employees earning some $1.3 billion in payroll and living primarily in five counties in the region with about 40 percent living in Los Alamos County. He said the Lab is hiring at close to 1,200 a year and about 75 percent of last year’s new hires were from New Mexico. The broader impact includes more than 24,000 jobs that are associated with the Lab directly and indirectly in the state, he said.
Mason said the Lab brings the best science to bear on the most pressing national problems.
“That toolkit of scientific capabilities has broader application that the sort of narrowly defined nuclear mission that most people would normally associate with the Lab,” he said.
He used the example of the scientific response to COVID-19 where the Lab had respond operationally in the same way that everyone else, but also applied scientific tools to understanding the pandemic – deploying expertise and COVID-19 modeling capability to help decision makers understand how things might progress. He also discussed the Lab’s development of instrumentation to better predict the impact of fires on air quality and climate, and the Lab’s involvement in the SuperCam on the Perseverance rover which landed on Mars this year.
“I know that not everyone agrees with everything that we do. I think we all wish that we lived in a world where nuclear weapons weren’t necessary and in fact we’re committed to those commitments in the Non-Proliferation Treaty. It’s our goal to get to that world, but as long as we’re not in that world, the responsibility that we’re given by the Department of Defense, by Congress, by the Department of Energy is to make sure that the deterrent is safe, secure and reliable,” Mason said, adding that he plans to host similar meetings on a regular basis to encourage dialogue and educate the public about what’s going on at the Lab.
Asked why it is necessary to produce 30 plutonium pits at LANL, and if he can guarantee that the pit production is safe, Mason discussed the approval of the central design and cost infrastructure investments for LAP4 – the Los Alamos Plutonium Pit Production Project.
“The need to start making them is because all the pits that are in the current stockpile that’s the ultimate guarantor of security, were manufactured in the 80s. They were initially robust, they were manufactured to high standards and so there has been no concern about that to this point. In fact we’ve been modernizing systems through life extension programs but reusing the pits up to this point,” he said. “However we are now moving well beyond the lifespan that was ever envisioned and it takes a long time to build up this capability. If we were to wait until we got to the point where the pits were no longer serviceable, we would actually have to build a much larger capability similar to what we had in the 80s at Rocky Flats when the stockpile was an order of magnitude larger than it is now in order to repopulate.”
Mason said it makes more sense to start now and keep the number small.
“Just as we replace every other component of the weapons as they age out, we need the ability to replace the pits as well which have been the longest lived components to this point,” he said.
Asked about how LANL’s rapidly increasing role as a “nuclear weapons production site squares with its self-image as a scientific campus”, Mason said 70 percent of the Lab’s budget is associated with the deterrent.
“It’s probably closer to 80 percent if you include the non-proliferation stuff which is also NNSA, so that’s definitely the largest component of what we do. It is much more than pits, although that gets a lot of the attention. That’s driving some of the infrastructure that we just talked about and also some of the hiring,” Mason said. “But we also do work taking care of the existing stockpile, doing some of those experiments with the supercomputers doing the modeling and simulation and a lot of the underlying science behind it.”
He said the Lab will continue to have those responsibilities as it takes on some of the production responsibilities.
“In fact the distinction between the labs as design agencies and the sites as production agencies has been a little bit altered by the reduction in the size of the complex as some of the production facilities have been phased out. Obviously Rocky Flats, where some of the pits were made previously hasn’t operated for a long time. And there are other production facilities that are no longer operating so the Lab has taken on production responsibilities. Just a reflection of the retraction of the size of the complex but we’ll continue to have our design responsibilities and in fact that scientific and technical capability is also what helps us to do the development process to get the pits into production as we go through this development and process proving phase that we’re doing now,” Mason said.
Asked what the “new” weapons are for when “current enemies at war against America including the Taliban are stateless terrorists,” Mason responded that the first thing to understand is the work the Lab is doing now on modernizing the stockpile is actually life extending weapons that are already in the system.
“We’re not growing the stockpile. We just completed the life expansion of something called the W76 which is a submarine-launched ballistic missile that was finished up two years ago and old 76s came off the subs, aged components were replaced and life-extended versions of that same weapon went back out to sea when the subs were launched. The same thing is true for the programs that are underway now that we’re supporting now which is the B61 which is an Air Force system and the W88 which is another submarine-launched system,” he said.
He said the posture has been through something called stockpile stewardship to make sure that the deterrent is have is safe, effective and reliable, and that it’s not a question of expanding it or giving it new capabilities.
“Although we may not be, thank God, fighting in an active war with some of our adversaries, the deterrent is very much alive and well and it’s living in places like the Baltic States and the Taiwan Straits. The peculiarity of the nuclear deterrent with nuclear weapons is that nuclear weapons are used without using the trigger. They affect the action of others by their presence. In fact in a certain sense, having a weapon you don’t need to use in a sense of firing in anger, in order for it to be effective, is better than the alternative. That world is very much with us today. We certainly see it in the actions of adversaries like Russia and China who are modernizing and in fact developing new weapons systems,” Mason said.
In response to a question from the Los Alamos Reporter about properties recently leased by LANL in Santa Fe, Mason noted that LANL is leasing additional space in Los Alamos as well as part of the same procurement.
“We’re not reducing our footprint at the Lab or in Los Alamos itself, but the additional space is to support the growth that we have that we just simply can’t accommodate. It will take a little while to take occupancy of the facilities that we’ve leased. There’s some work the owners of the buildings are doing to get them ready so we’ll be moving in over the course of the next year. We’ll see how that works,” he said.
He noted that “being further away” is new for the Lab.
“We were looking within a 50 mile radius but we’ll get more experience. When we started this, it was before the pandemic hit and we’ve come to understand that we can do a lot more at a distance than we thought. So that may mean that in the future we look for more leases but for now we’re going to take occupancy of the space we have and get everyone settled again and see how that goes and then depending on what happens in terms of our space needs in the future we may look for more but we have no immediate plans we are going to put into motion,” Mason said.