After safety breaches, new Los Alamos director pushes for accountability at nuclear weapons lab
|sciencemag.org 19 Jan 2018 at 10:44|
LOS ALAMOS, NEW MEXICOThe new director of Los Alamos National Laboratory here, Terry Wallace, took the helm earlier this month at a particularly challenging time in the U.S. nuclear weapons labs storied 75-year history. Repeated safety violations necessitated a temporary shutdown of much of the labs plutonium facility from 2013 to 2015, and further infractions in August 2017 including improper storage of plutonium metal that could have triggered an uncontrolled fission reactionprompted the U.S. Department of Energy, Los Alamoss overseer, to put the labs management contract out for bid. A consortium will continue to run the national laboratory until the winning bidder takes over the $2.5-billion-a-year operation this fall.
Since it was built in secret in 1943 to house the Manhattan Project, which created the first atomic bomb in 1945, Los Alamos has diversified its R&D portfolio. Its research areas now include everything from studying wildfire behavior to developing vaccines. But the labs central mission may well be updated in the coming months: President DonaldTrumps administrations Nuclear Posture Review, leaked to the media earlier this month, signaled interest in developing new low-yield nuclear weapons, even as some of the labs most knowledgeable weapons experts are nearing retirement age.
Insidercaught up with Wallace, 61, a geophysicist and Los Alamos native, at a site near his perch in the high-security Emerald Palacethe labs jade-hued glass administrative buildingto discuss his plans for improving safety, navigating the management transition, and retaining expertise.This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Q: What was it like growing up here when the town was a military reservation?
A:It was fantastic. I really didnt know it was any different from anywhere else in the world. We had a vibrant community: Itvalued science, it valued questioning, and so my schoolmates and I had tremendous opportunities. People from the lab taught classes in my high school. There were different aspectsaboutit that werent so favorable. When I was growing up in Boy Scouts, we collected depleted uranium instead of aluminum cans as fundraisers.
Q: Youve taken the helm at a challenging time for the lab. Los Alamos has been cited for numerous safety violations, including two this past August. How will you improve safety?
A:I want to make it really clear: Were here as a mission laboratory. We have a complicated mission that comes to us from the federal government. But we also serve as an icon. We are the home to the invention of the most horrific weapon invented by mankind. So, there are many people who automatically look at Los Alamos as a turn in human history that was regrettable to them. Thats the political lens through which everything at Los Alamos is viewed. When you look at the work that we do, it is complicated, and it is difficult. Were the only place [in the United States] that does large-scale work on plutonium. We must meet the expectations to be the safest and most secure site in the country. At the same time, the realization that those expectations are under a magnifying glass, sometimes I think we miss that.
We cannot have any accidents. We do things at times that are simply unacceptable. My goal is to deliver our mission and do that safely and securely, and hold people both accountable and empowered to do that. Thats a hard thing, but thats what we need to be able to do.
Q: With allthe negative attention from the security breaches, has the staffs morale been shaken?
A:I do think morale is shaken. They feel like theyve been criticized or demonized without the understanding that they are dedicated very much to doing the work of the nation. People that come here are incredibly proud of the work they do. If you work here, youre committing to a lifetime of polygraphs. We dont do this lightly.
Q: In the wake of the safety breaches, the labs management contract is up for bid. Does the prospect of being a short-term director factor into how you makedecisions,and are you feeling a sense of urgency to accomplish as much as possible?
A:Our top priority is to manage throughtransition, not to transition. I dont know whats going to happen and indeed, it could be a short term. I dont actually spend a lot of emotional energy thinking about it. When we went through the first [change in management] in 2006, it did cause a drop in our productivity. A considerable drop. That experience certainly informs us, and me, in how we have to avoid some of those things. On a personal note, ofcoursethis is my home. Im deeply part of the New Mexico community, and I cant imagine a life without that. So, do I have personal angst? Certainly.
Q: What are your priorities for the coming months?
A:I think that the simplest priority is, were here to do the work of the nation, and we cannot afford to fail. Most of the nuclear weapons that are on call in the United States were invented at Los Alamos. Every year, the directors [of Los Alamos, Sandia, and Livermore national laboratories] have to sign a letter that says that they are safe, reliable, and effective. Its a big deal. Its the most important thing they do. That was fairly easy [before the test ban treaty in 1992]. You push a button and you get a boom in the desert. We had to invent a whole science paradigm to ensure these weapons worked without doing tests. And thats a complicated thing, and it gets more complicated as time goes on, because these weapons were never designed to last for an infinite period of time.
We are the place that provides technical details on what the rest of the worldwhether they be peers, adversaries, or rogue countries, such as North Koreawhat their nuclear program looks like. And we take that obligation incredibly seriously.
Q: Trump has said he wants to greatly strengthen and expand a long-planned update to the nations nuclear arsenal. Notably, the Nuclear Posture Review talks about developing new types of low-yield nuclear weapons. How do you feel about that prospect?
A:It will affect perhaps what were assigned in the future, but we dont opine or provide input on what that policy should be. We will execute the mission and what were asked to do for national security.
Q: In terms of the practical requirements that would need to be met to produce those weapons, is the lab ready to take something like that on?
A:Again, we will execute the mission that comes to us, and we will clearly think about what they mean. And there are many salient, societal questions that are in a Nuclear Posture Review. Theres only been three [such reviews]. And so, when they come, they aresignificantdocuments to the way we operate.
Q: In the past, there have been major concerns about maintaining a technical workforce able to build and maintain nuclear weapons. How is the lab preserving that knowledge base?
A:Were in one of the biggest transitions weve ever had in the laboratory, just because of demographics. We have people around my age with firsthand knowledge of things who will be retiring. Weve hired a lot of younger people, mainly through our postdoc program, and theyre outstanding. Its Los Alamoss job to anticipate a changing world in an incredibly complicated and changing environment.
Q: Los Alamos is best known for its weapons work, but it conducts research in many other areas, too. Given the funding challenges for science in the current political climate, how will you ensure that the labs programs that arent tied to national security remain intact?
A:Thats a great question. If you look at most of the programs that we do here, we do those programs because theyrecutting-edgescience, but they have a connection back to national security. I feel we are actually less at risk in the present environment than many otherplaces,because we have that connection.