BY MAIRE O’NEILL
Los Alamos National Laboratory director Thom Mason spoke at length during Tuesday evening’s virtual community town hall about nuclear deterrence and the period of mission growth the Lab currently taking place at LANL.
“The nation is asking the Lab to take on increased national security missions and that’s been reflected in the growth of the budget and of course that budget growth translates into staffing increase. Over the course of the last couple of years we’ve seen the Lab budget go up by about $1.5 billion a year and that added about 2,500 to our staffing,” Mason said.
He noted that the main driver behind that is really the national security mission of nuclear deterrence, nuclear nonproliferation that is “the bedrock of Laboratory missions” and that it’s driven by a couple of factors.
“First off, the nuclear deterrent that is the backbone of our national security as a nation has been for the last number of decades through something called stockpile stewardship, an exercise of taking care of the deterrent that we have, however that has been aging and was largely built in the 80s and we’re now going through a period where we have to modernize,” he said. “We have to replace components that have been aging out in those systems. It’s not about growing the size of our deterrent or adding the capabilities. We just have to make sure that the deterrent that we have is safe, secure and reliable, and that requires some of that investment.”
As context for that, Mason said it’s important to reflect on the world around us. He said at the end of the Cold War there was hope that the U.S. would be headed to a world where nuclear deterrence would be less important.
“That’s not the world we find ourselves in in 2022,” he said.
Mason said he had the privilege of meeting President Biden when he was in Santa Fe last Saturday mainly to learn about the fires in New Mexico.
“We had a chance to talk about the Cerro Pelado Fire and the steps that the Lab and the firefighters took to protect us from that. But we also talked a little about the Ukraine situation and the fact that Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia, has not been shy about being very threatening and bellicose in his invocation of nuclear weapons in that conflict and the U.S.’s response to that has certainly been one of trying to do everything it can to allow Ukraine to defend itself without coming into direct conflict with a nuclear-armed adversary,” he said. “It’s sort of a reasonable thing to ask, ‘What’s the meaning of deterrence?’ in this context, and I think the role that deterrence is playing in the Ukraine right now really from both the Russian and the U.S. side is to attempt to limit that conflict.”
Mason said Russia has made it very clear in their statements that they do not want the U.S. or European countries to directly enter the conflict and has made very threatening statements about their nuclear capabilities.
“At the same time, the U.S. and NATO allies have made it very clear that invasion of the Ukraine is unacceptable but going beyond that to NATO would totally change the situation and when the President says, ‘Not one inch of NATO territory,’ what’s behind that statement is our deterrent,” Mason said. “So deterrence is playing an important role so far in limiting that conflict and the reason that’s important is because we’ve seen in the past where conflicts that start in one particular location in Europe can spread”.
He noted that in 1939 when Nazi Germany and two weeks later, Soviet Russia invaded Poland, that grew to become the Second World War, and that the First World War started with the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, which also spread to become a global conflict.
“Containing the conflict, as terrible as it is, is something that’s important if we’re not going to get dragged into that kind of a conflict. The nuclear deterrent mission of Los Alamos National Laboratory is part of what allows the U.S to make those statement like, ‘Not one inch of NATO territory’ to contain the conflict. It’s also quite frankly why the U.S. has not wanted to impose things like no fly zones or get directly engaged militarily,” Mason said. “The nuclear deterrent acts as a restraint.”
He said one of his predecessors, perhaps Harold Agnew, once said that the role of nuclear weapons is to force restraint on leaders so that they have time to find other solutions.
“That role is as important now as it has ever been. With that growth comes a need to increase our operational capacity, which is key to meeting these mission demands for the decades to come. There’s a piece of it, which is infrastructure; we have to revitalize our infrastructure on the Lab site. We have facilities that are aging and either have to be updated or replaced but that’s not the only tool in the toolbox; we’re also leasing property, working on transportation to make it easier to move around between different locations, where people live and where they work. And of course we’re drawing heavily on the contracting community construction workforce to help us do all of that,” Mason said.
He noted that in addition to infrastructure, what comes with the growth is hiring.
“We are on track this year, FY 2022, to hire 2,000 people in addition to the 2,500 that have already joined the Laboratory. In fact in the first six months of the fiscal year (since October 1), we hired 1,015. I can multiply by two so that means we should make 2,000 once we add in the second six months of the fiscal year. We’re doing that through stepping up our recruiting, we’re bringing in interns and setting up special programs so that we can hire on the spot quickly. It’s a very competitive job market but we have an important mission and I’m pleased to see that we’re finding the people that we need with the skills that we need,” Mason said.
Editor’s note: Watch the Los Alamos Reporter for an additional report on other issues discussed by Dr. Mason during Tuesday’s event.