BY MAIRE O’NEILL
After waiting since late 2018, it appears that the Los Alamos County Council may soon be able to review the Los Alamos National Laboratory Master Site Plan. LANL Deputy Chief of Operations Kelly Beierschmitt told Councilor during their May 18 work session that when he met with them in 2018, he predicted unprecedented growth which has been realized.
“If you look at the numbers, in 2018 we were at about $2.7 billion dollars. This year we’re at about $3.7 billion in funding. If you think about it that’s a billion dollars of new growth. The Lab that I worked at prior to Los Alamos, the Idaho National Laboratory was a $1.2 billion laboratory, so we have almost added an entire second national laboratory to the mission space at Los Alamos,”
Former Department of Energy NNSA Los Alamos Field Office Manage Mike Weis told Council in April that with funds from last year’s budget that have been carried over and yet to be executed, there would be “on the order of $5 billion of outlay work this year”.
Beierschmitt said. “With that unprecedented growth comes significant challenges and it will explain a lot of what we’re doing to the community or in the community in terms of leases and construction by walking you through that a bit.”
He said this is like playing the video game Tetris for the operating officer.
“I’ve got to figure out how to recruit the number of staff to execute that mission growth. We have to find housing. We have to create spaces for them. We have to deal with transportation challenges both on the hill as well as people that have to commute from Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Rio Arriba County and elsewhere,” he said.
Beierschmitt noted that in community discussions he frequently has with developers, they ask the future of Los Alamos looks like and what the needs are going to be.
“Obviously having a location for people to work, live and play is very important to my ability to recruit and retain. We’ve been sharing that at these Council meetings and in other forums. That’s very important to our future so I appreciate everything the County and the development community is doing to help meet these needs for our new employees. But it definitely is like a Tetris. We have to fit a lot of things together in order to exercise these missions,” he said.
Since 2017, LANL has added more than 1,000 “career staff”. This includes everyone other than the more transient visiting scientists, post docs, students, he said.
“It’s not just the career staff that are important to our future but we also need significant skilled labor sources. The number of craft employees continues to grow and we project to add another 600 over the next two years,” Beierschmitt said. “The competition for skilled labor in the United States and certainly in Northern New Mexico is fierce. Every time I see a news article about Amazon or Intel expanding, it’s in direct competition to my ability to get electricians, pipefitters and others into the workforce at Los Alamos.”
He noted that the Lab also has transient craft workers that need lodging while they are at the Lab for a job lasting several months.
“We’ve introduced multitask order contractors into our construction so that we can actually bring people in to do the work that we need to do. The construction over the next several years will amount to somewhere between $700 million and $1 billion a year and all of that is going to be a real challenge to staff,” Beierschmitt said.
He went on to discuss the collaboration with Northern New Mexico educational institutions to help students get into careers at LANL and other ways the pipeline for jobs works.
“What do I do with these people? Where do we find offices for them? How do we transport them to the site when they need to be up here? Where do they live? Where do they eat and shop? Things of that nature are very important and I appreciate everything the County has been doing to help us there,” Beierschmitt said.
He also discussed the effects of the COVID pandemic on the Lab.
“What was fascinating about COVID was we found out that many of the workforce could actually be productive and effective working in remote locations at home. The Lab’s business didn’t stop overnight. We continued to operate the missions, we continued to make payroll, we continued to do construction and we continued to issue contracts,” he said. “We started a pilot which was one of the first in the system. We have1,400 to 1,500 teleworkers – who actually moved out of their offices up on the hill to create room for people that we were hiring that had to come up on the hill to conduct their business.”
Beierschmitt said this freed up 42,000 square feet in the Pajarito Corridor which met an immediate demand. Two facilities, one in the Otowi Building and one off-site in Central Park Square were reconfigured as teleworking hubs. Otowi now supports 1,000 staff instead of 500 in the same space. In the leased Central Park Square property, he said there are a combination of people there every day- some not teleworking, some on a hybrid mode and others that will work from home or wherever and then use that space to come in and organize meetings and things of that nature, he said. This allows the number of employees using that space to increase from 210 to 670. Currently approximately 55 percent of Lab staff are either in full-time telework mode or hybrid telework mode.
Beierschmitt also discussed two new leases in Santa Fe. Those facilities will have a combination of full-time workers and teleworking hubs as well as scientific workshops and special meetings. A newly leased space in Los Alamos will be used for essential training for new hires for some of the Labs “high-tech missions”, he said.
The Lab is also looking for light laboratory space.
“Quite frankly I’ve got laboratories that are substandard today and at this point I really must get them into better equipment and I can’t build fast enough to meet those demands,” Beierschmitt said. “A request for interest went out for lab space and companion offices to deal with some of those open science programs that we have. That doesn’t mean that we’re not doing a lot onsite. We continue to build and expand. We’ve completed and occupied two facilities – one a bio lab facility and the other secure office space and our classified activities are taking place there.”
He described the modular buildings being constructed on site and said an additional five similar facilities with two to four stories are part of the Master Site Plan. Two parking garages have been built and another is expected to be part of the Master Site Plan.
“These on-site construction activities represent that growth that I showed you previously. Again, we’ve almost added another entire national lab to the mission space at Los Alamos,” Beierschmitt said.
He noted the addition of cell towers onsite which the Lab hopes will be a benefit for those commuting up and down the hill. He also mentioned that without the COVID roads have been re-done and that the craft and construction workforce has been incredibly busy.
“Our funding is established at $3.7 billion for FY 2021. We believe that’s going to continue. We’re not expecting another billion – we’re expecting it to level off. But we’ve got a lot of catching up to do in hiring, construction, playing that Tetris game that I showed you. We continue to have a massive effort in procurements in Northern New Mexico. We continue to have hiring campaigns,” Beierschmitt said. “It’s a myth that Los Alamos is full of people from out of state that all have PhDs. I have the largest workforce out there and a large number come from Northern New Mexico. In fact the data shows that in the past year, 70 percent of everyone we hired is from Northern New Mexico.”
Asked about repair or reconstruction of the Omega Bridge, Beierschmitt said it’s “not in the thin plan” but is part of the long-range Master Site plan.
“We have engineers that inspect that bridge and have to recertify it on an annual basis and it’s something clearly that would affect the community. So how that gets placed or where the location is will be is something that we will need to take a very long view in. At this point, the bridge has a limited life. It’s either going to have to be taken down for a period of time and new footings poured and things of that nature which would be really difficult, or the other option would be to build a companion bridge before this one is unusable and keep this one maybe as a hiking/pedestrian bridge, maybe make it a part of the system,” he said.
Regarding the LANL bio lab next to Los Alamos Medical Center, Beierschmitt said LANL had been moving out of that space but the growth in that research and the loss of a lease forced them into a position where they had to go back and invest money to create livable space in that facility again.
“So it’s got a lot of folks in there as you probably know. Our certified COVID testing lab was actually set up in that building. We’ll be testing 1,000 people a week until we get this behind us,” he said. “What was planned to be vacant and taken down so that we could reuse that space, has been deferred but that is one example of why it is so urgent for me to get lab space for people and a perfect example for why the RFI has been released.”
Beierschmitt also noted that the Lab’s Wellness Center in dire need of updates.
“It’s been in the planning but this is another one of these opportunities where it might be good to partner with the community in some way, and so what my staff have been doing is trying to get creative in how that might be a public/private partnership to upgrade that wellness center. As you know we’ve got specific requirements for a portion of our workforce to use it as part of their job requirements, and how we do that and create enough space for employee wellness is the challenge. I know pre-COVID there were a couple of ideas that were being bounced around about a public/private partnership and we would certainly be interested in something like that,” he said.
Beierschmitt said it was hoped to have an unrestricted release of the Master Site Plan promised in 2018 but the time of the Council meeting .
“It’s getting very, very close and I’ve reviewed a couple of versions of it and approved those unclassified versions and now it’s going through that very methodical process to make sure there’s no information there that might be detrimental to our government. But it’s very close and you will have my commitment to make those available to this Council on a priority basis as soon as they are available,” he said.