BY MAIRE O’NEILL
Los Alamos National Laboratory Thom Mason, speakin and answering questions during a virtual town hall last Tuesday, (https://losalamosreporter.com/2022/06/16/lanl-director-thom-mason-addresses-nuclear-deterrence-mission-growth-during-virtual-community-town-hall) touching on multiple issues of a particularly local nature including hiring, jobs, traffic, childcare and recent properties leased off LANL property. He again noted that the long-awaited LANL Site Master Plan will be released in the next couple of months
Mason said that although the Lab’s primary mission is national security and nuclear deterrence, what it brings to that mission is “cutting edge science” and that that science has broader implications, even beyond the confines of the National Nuclear Security Administration.
“In terms of the infrastructure, we’re having to do things differently and part of that includes making permanent what we learned unfortunately through the difficulties of COVID in terms of telework and so we now have a significant component – about 25 percent of our workforce – that’s teleworking either full-time or part-time. We’ve expanded our footprint leasing offices off the hill. We’re also seeking to better optimize transportation to make it easier to move around,” Mason said.
He noted that there are other changes associated with the growth of the Lab that impact the region.
“Obviously housing is one area that’s a challenge. I’m gratified to see that the developer community has been stepping up with an increased level of development going on throughout Northern New Mexico, in Los Alamos, in Rio Arriba County, in Santa Fe, extending down to the northern part of Albuquerque and places like Rio Rancho. Hopefully that will alleviate housing pressure over time,” he said.
Mason wants to see what the Lab can do to reduce commuter traffic. Some 60 percent of Lab staff fo not live in Los Alamos County; they live in the surrounding communities.
“That’s a lot of people to drive up through that bottleneck getting onto the hill. Of course the good news about that means that the economic activity that goes along with that growth is really felt across the whole region – across the whole of Northern New Mexico – and we do provide stable employment, good jobs paying good wages with good benefits across multiple counties,” Mason said.
In terms of the science that the Lab is conducting, he noted that science is really what LANL brings to our national security mission.
“But that same took kit – the experimental facilities, the theory and modeling and simulations – is also applicable in other areas. One area that’s very much in everyone’s mind right now is wildfires, and in fact we can use our super computers to better predict wildfire spread and actually develop tools to more accurately plan for safety for controlled burns,” Mason said. “This is something that’s going to become really important, given the trends with wildfires with the changes in the climate. It’s still going to be important to do controlled burns but we’ve seen in some of the fires in New Mexico that that can be hazardous and although you can probably never get 100 percent certainty, I think that with some of these scientific tools we’ll be able to better decisions as to what the risks are.”
He said LANL is also looking at how to model smoke from some of the recent mega-fires to assess the impacts it has on local temperatures.
“We’re experiencing that right now in New Mexico. A couple of years ago, there were some enormous wildfires in British Columbia and Australia, and that does loft a lot of particulate and that can be another factor in climate and weather patterns and we’re trying to better understand that,” Mason said.
These studies are useful tools because they allow state and regional communities to better plan for what’s coming and hopefully also encourage efforts to transition to more carbon neutral economies so that we can avoid the worst aspects of those kinds of changes, he said.
“Another area where we apply our scientific expertise is understanding viruses and how they mutate and evolve and certainly we’re seeing that in real time now with COVID-19, but there are other viruses that we studied in the past. One of the things we’re interested in doing now is understanding how we can use those tools to better prepare so that when, not if, but when there’s another emergent bio-threat like COVID-19, we can respond more adequately,” Mason said.
In terms of community engagement, Mason said in view of the hiring the Lab is doing, educational programs have been developed with educational institutions to train Lab employees and future workforce.
“We have well over 100 students enrolled in several new programs and we have seen students graduating from those moving into full-time employment at the Lab. That’s obviously helpful to the region. It’s actually to our advantage to hire people locally because that alleviates some of the challenges in terms of housing because they may already have somewhere to live and they’re actually less likely to leave, so that helps us in terms of retention,” he said.
Mason said the Lab has seen the tremendous dislocation and anguish associated with the wildfires in the state of New Mexico and in fact as part of an effort to encourage employee donations, Triad, LLC provided a match to help out.
He said one of the largest philanthropic activities of the Lab is actually through the Employee Scholarship Fund, which is funded by staff through payroll deductions.
“We also kick in some corporately as well and that awarded $384,000 to 146 students from throughout Northern New Mexico that’s administered through the LANL Foundation,” Mason said.
He also noted that he is proud that LANL is the largest corporate to The Food Depot and that the last employee drive resulted in 233,000 meals going to families in need.
Mason said LANL provided $1.9 million in technical support to 104 New Mexico companies through the New Mexico Small Business Assistance Program that allows New Mexico small businesses to access the technical expertise that exists both at LANL and Sandia National Laboratory to solve some of their technical problems. He said small businesses in New Mexico have access to thousands of scientists and engineers that can help them solve problems.
“You probably wouldn’t find that kind of capability anywhere else in the country or anywhere else in the world,” Mason said.
During the question and answer period, Mason was asked what LANL is doing to prepare for a future that will probably mean more and bigger wildfires in the southwest. He noted the results of a study of the Colorado River Basin that indicated that if things continued the way they are going, Colorado is going to end up in the future looking like Arizona does now.
“If Colorado looks like Arizona, that tells you that New Mexico is going to be dryer and hotter than it is now. It certainly does not bode well in terms of wildfire risk and that’s something that we’re going to be dealing with into the future. We’re going to have to incorporate that into how we operate the Lab and how we live our lives; even things like how we can protect our homes,” Mason said. “It’s a beautiful place to be; it’s nice to be in the mountains but you don’t want those big trees within 30 feet of your home and the same applies to a research facility like the Lab.”
Mason later noted that the amount of waste stored at the Lab has decreased dramatically. Particularly in the last three years, LANL has stepped up efforts in wildfire risk mitigation. Since Triad came on board, he budget for wildfire risk mitigation has increased from $2 million to $11 million a year. More heavy equipment for fuel removal has been purchased and bridges on fire roads have been replaced to enable fire equipment to access those areas to fight fires if they start.
The mitigation efforts mean that there is much better protection around Lab facilities and also along the evacuation corridors, Mason said. He said trees are still needed to control the erosion but spacing between the trees is being kept far enough that the fire doesn’t hop in the canopy which is how it would propagate really quickly.
Mason was asked where new hires at the Lab will live. He responded that the good news there is that there has been a noticeable increase in the amount of activity in terms of housing developments in the region.
“We pay good salaries so we’re not competing for low income housing. People can afford to pay mortgages and pay rents. So I think the market is responding. It’s still a challenging time with interest rates going up it makes things more expensive,” he said.
He noted that the opening of the Lab facilities in Santa Fe will help because the employees based there will have an expanded footprint in terms of their housing options. Currently staff commute to the Lab from Bernalillo County, Rio Rancho, Bernalillo and even Albuquerque itself.
“That’s a pretty long haul coming all the way up to Los Alamos, but if they are coming to our Pacheco office… that’s a much more viable commute. There’s also a lot of development going on down there that will help as well,” Mason said.
He hopes the Santa Fe facilities in addition to the wide implementation of telework will lessen the traffic concerns in Los Alamos County as the number of employees increases as projected. He said right now the Lab is pretty much back to normal in terms of operations with the COVID restrictions no longer hampering work. Anyone who needs to be at work can be at work and anyone who needs to travel can travel.
“We have not seen the traffic get back to as bad as it was pre-COVID and I think a big part of that is that even though staff has grown, we have more options with about 3,500 people teleworking either full-time or part-time and many people who can work out of Santa Fe. That’s helping! We’re also investing a lot in improving the transportation infrastructure at the Lab itself. Obviously we don’t build and maintain roads off the Lab property… but on the Lab we are improving the roads, adding bike lanes and we’re also trying to work with the local transportation authorities on public transportation options,” Mason said.
Asked about the five-year and 10-year plans LANL had discussed a few years ago, if there were changes to those plans and if they would ever be released, Mason said LANL is working on releasing the plans and they should be out in about two months.
“We actually got slowed down a little because of the fire response so that has delayed getting that released, but it will be coming out shortly. They’re living plans so they change over time… The infrastructure plans that I’ve been talking about over the past three years haven’t changed dramatically. We’ve got a lot more detail around it and we’ve developed some great tools in terms of geographic information systems so that we can understand the Laboratory site and what it makes sense to out where,” he said.
Mason addressed the Site-Wide Environmental Impact statement that is due for LANL and will be conducted by the federal government. He said it has been a while since there has been a SWEIS and the process has already begun. He said that the Site Master Plan will give important input to the SWEIS because the site-wide moniker implies the SWEIS will represent everything in Los Alamos, not just the NNSA missions, but also the Environmental Management program and will be looking at the plans for facilities, transportation and energy use.
“It will also include some of the big ticket facilities like the Plutonium Facility, the LANSCE Accelerator, our supercomputers and those kinds of things,” he said. “Part of the framework of that is extensive public consultation so there will be plenty of opportunities for the community to provide input as the federal government works through that process with Laboratory support.”
During the Q&A session, Mason confirmed that there will never be an onsite childcare facility at the Lab.
“Just given the nature of what we do, that’s not an appropriate thing for us to do on that site,” he said.
He noted that childcare is a challenging area particularly because a lot of childcare facilities closed during the pandemic and things haven’t totally recovered yet. He said it is a matter of working with childcare providers in the surrounding communities to develop that capacity since it’s not something the Lab can provide on its location.
“We’re exploring options for that. We’re available for discussion but there are limitations to what we can do with federal funds but creative ideas are definitely welcome. I recognize that the pandemic really set us back in that regard,” Mason said.
One question submitted said there are always rumors that the Lab is responsible for unrented commercial property in Los Alamos and White Rock because “local landlords artificially keep rents high in the hope of getting a LANL lease”. As a result, the question said, “this thriving LANL community with an expanding annual budget looks more like an old (inaudible) town. Can the Lab do anything about this?”
“I guess if by not renting the property we’re responsible for it not being rented, maybe that’s the case, but right now we have no additional plans to lease additional office space. We are going through a process to find some warehouse space. We’re actually looking at a wider footprint for that space; we’ve extended it all the way down to Albuquerque. In fact there are probably some advantages to not having warehouse space not be in Los Alamos because of the traffic, because we can take delivery there and manage deliveries up to the Lab,” he said. “So I would say, if you own some commercial property in Los Alamos, I think there are better and higher uses for that that will get you better return on investment than leaving it vacant for an undetermined amount of time. We are hiring a lot of staff, but people with young families need daycare spaces, they need restaurants to eat in, they need shopping. So I think there are lots of good uses for that property and I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for a lease”.
Another question was if the Lab is encouraging and supporting Los Alamos County to improve retail options because “it would be nice to have a community that reflects the prestige and importance of the Lab”. Mason responded that he had just supported the community and retail options.
“That helps us all. It generates more revenue through sales tax, it provides a more attractive community for us to recruit people to so I think that would be a great thing,” Mason said.
Asked what kind of jobs LANL is hiring for, and what type of jobs the Lab prioritizes hiring locally, Mason responded, “All kinds of jobs”.
“There’s maybe a perception that somehow LANL is a bunch of nuclear physicists. We do have some nuclear physicists; about 25 percent of our workforce is PhD scientists and engineers. The other 75 percent is absolutely every skill that you can imagine so we need accountants, communicators, human resources professionals, and we particularly skilled craft employees because of all that infrastructure work. We need technicians of various sorts,” he said. “I think no matter what your skill set is, it’s likely that there’s something that’s a match for our hiring needs.”
For people who don’t have those skills, Mason said LANL is working on pipeline programs with educational institutions throughout the region so that people can acquire them. He said the Lab will be hiring mode for the next couple of years and then things will probably level off at that point to where they will only be replacing retirees.
“If you’re interested in doing important work that helps secure the nation and advances the frontiers of science, no matter what sort of a role it is, then there may well be something at the Lab,” he said.