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Nuclear Security Lab Directors Spotlight Workforce and Infrastructure Needs

FEB 02, 2024
The heads of the three main nuclear security labs in the U.S. are pushing to better retain personnel after a recent hiring surge and to refresh the scientific infrastructure across their campuses.
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Director of FYI
nnsa-lab-leaders-2023.jpg

From left: Sandia National Labs Director James Peery, NNSA Administrator Jill Hruby, Lawrence Livermore National Lab Director Kim Budil, and Los Alamos National Lab Director Thom Mason.

(National Nuclear Security Administration)

The directors of Los Alamos, Lawrence Livermore, and Sandia National Labs spoke this week on pressing challenges and opportunities facing the nuclear security enterprise, appearing together at the annual Nuclear Deterrence Summit in Washington, DC.

The trio recounted how the labs have grown their staffs by thousands of people in recent years to tackle historic workloads as the U.S. modernizes its nuclear weapons infrastructure amid a tense geopolitical environment. Now, their focus is on retaining workers and planning for their next generation of research facilities while juggling stewardship responsibilities for the current warhead stockpile.

The head of the National Nuclear Security Administration, which oversees the labs, also emphasized the scale of work underway in a keynote speech and made the case for refreshing the labs’ research infrastructure in parallel with rebuilding the means of weapons production.

“NNSA is being asked to do more than at any time since the Manhattan Project,” said NNSA head Jill Hruby.

Labs navigate hiring surge

Each director said their labs have been able to reduce personnel attrition rates but face continuing challenges posed by housing shortages and high costs of living, among other factors.

“In 2023, we hired 2,500 people, which is a lot, but that’s our peak year,” said Thom Mason, director of Los Alamos National Lab in New Mexico. “We’re already starting to taper and return to our normal turnover rate, which would be probably 800 people a year. We’re also back to our historical attrition rates.”

Mason pointed to housing as a key issue. “We’ve added net 5,000 staff in the last five years. Turns out all those people want someplace to live. They want schools that their kids can go to and those sorts of things,” he said. “We’re in a less populated part of the country, so we maybe don’t have the pure cost challenges of the Bay Area, but we have a scarcity problem.”

Mason also said his lab is now shifting its focus from recruitment to retention and training. “Whether you’re a plasma physicist or a material scientist or an electrician, when you’re a new hire in the lab, you don’t come in fully proficient in all the quirks and peculiarities of our line of business,” he said.

Sandia National Labs Director James Peery said the attrition rates at his labs are also “back to historical norms” but he is “still seeing people disproportionately leaving between three and seven years.”

“And so that’s got us focused at Sandia about speed to proficiency and increasing our training,” Peery said. Also top of mind are quality of life issues at Sandia’s sites in Livermore, California, and in Albuquerque near Los Alamos.

“If you’re a single employee – so no double income – and new, you’re going to be looking a long time before you buy a house, and rent is incredibly high [in Livermore]. In Albuquerque, our attrition issues are more around schools, how good the schools are, and crime is becoming a bigger and bigger issue in Albuquerque for us. And then last, actually health care,” he said.

Lawrence Livermore National Lab Director Kim Budil said her lab is “actually in quite a good place right now in terms of recruitment and retention.”

“We did a lot of work with our partners at NNSA to help build a more attractive package to bring people to our sites and encourage them to participate in this important work,” Budil explained. Among these actions, NNSA permitted its labs to make mid-year compensation increases for the first time ever and raised promotion budgets.

Budil also said that the recent downturn in the tech industry has cooled the competition for skilled workers in the Bay Area. However, she said the lab now is grappling with shortages of office space.

“Livermore was in a phase where our workforce was declining as the nation struggled to have a consensus around the path forward for the nuclear deterrent. That changed very suddenly … and we grew by more than 3,000 people over five years. And if they all show up tomorrow, they don’t all have offices, because we were closing buildings,” she said.

To emphasize the point, Budil noted how President Joe Biden’s science adviser, Arati Prabhakar, visited the lab recently and was surprised at how much of the campus was the same as when she was there as a summer student in 1978.

Right before her tour, Prabhakar said she did not think she would recognize anything, Budil recounted.

“Have no fear,” Budil replied. “I’m sure we can find your office.”

Science infrastructure overdue for refresh, lab directors say

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The target chamber of the National Ignition Facility during its installation in 1999.

(Lawrence Livermore National Lab)

The lab directors also made the case for making major upgrades to the lab’s major science and engineering tools, many of which are used to certify that the nuclear weapons in the stockpile remain reliable without having to resort to explosive testing. The U.S. ceased conducting tests that generate nuclear yield in 1992.

Budil pointed as an example to Livermore’s National Ignition Facility, which achieved a breakthrough fusion reaction last year. “That facility has been operating full tilt for 10 years. It largely was designed across the 1990s and early 2000s, so it’s in desperate need of recapitalization and sustainment investments.” She also said that after NIF came online in 2009, “our site went 10 years without having a line-item project of any kind.”

Peery said Sandia is in a similar situation, noting the lab’s last major addition was the Microsystems Engineering, Science and Applications (MESA) facility. “To put it in perspective, it produces the strategic radiation-hard microelectronics that go into the brains of all the weapon systems. It’s at 350 nanometers. Right now you can go buy an iPhone 15 that has [chips that are] 3 nanometers,” he said.

“We don’t need 3 nanometers for nuclear weapons, but [the MESA facility] is in a state of real decay and we’re running it to failure,” he said. Sandia’s facilities for studying materials under hostile radiation environments are in similar shape, he said, noting for instance that its Annular Core Research Reactor was built in the 1950s.

Mason spoke to the importance of planning now for the next generation of facilities.

“Today, we use as part of our assessment processes facilities that were conceived at the end of the Cold War and investments that were made in facilities like NIF and DARHT [the Dual-Axis Radiographic Hydrodynamic Test facility]. They are bread and butter, absolutely essential,” Mason said. “We need to apply that same kind of foresight and planning in looking at the deterrence challenges of the future and ask the question, ‘What tools will we need 10, 20, 30 years from now?’”

“It’s a difficult thing to do in the current environment because of course we’re all consumed with the challenges of the modernization program,” he added. Los Alamos has been tasked with annually manufacturing 30 plutonium pits, which are the cores of nuclear weapons. The lab aims to achieve that production rate by 2028.

“It’s easy to say, ‘well, all this scientific capability is really a long-term thing,’ That actually couldn’t be further from the truth,” he said. “These are the tools that we use as part of the way that we design, certify, and assess the deterrent. And in fact, it’s not long term, because the biggest impacts in terms of the deterrent today come from understanding issues that arise in the surveillance program that drive us back to experiments at DARHT or high-performance computers and all those other elements of that enterprise.”

NNSA Administrator Hruby also raised concerns that the demands of reconstituting weapons production capabilities may result in science infrastructure needs being neglected.

“We cannot, we simply cannot let the science and technology part of our enterprise atrophy the way we allowed the production enterprise to atrophy. We can’t, but I’m afraid sometimes we are,” Hruby said. “And so how do we get enough money to do both?”

“It’s hard to say, ‘unless we do this science, we will not be able to find X,’ because you don’t know what ‘the X’ is. That’s the whole point, right? That you’re trying to find the surprises,” she said.

“So it’s much harder to articulate, but we have to,” she continued. “And then we have to get the money to do it, and it’s going to be hard. This is not a slam dunk. But our science enterprise has been ignored now for around a decade. Another decade will be terrible; we can’t let it happen.”

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