Terry Wallace is the director of Los Alamos National Laboratory. 

Los Alamos National Laboratory

After safety breaches, new Los Alamos director pushes for accountability at nuclear weapons lab

LOS ALAMOS, NEW MEXICO—The 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 lab’s storied 75-year history. Repeated safety violations necessitated a temporary shutdown of much of the lab’s plutonium facility from 2013 to 2015, and prompted the U.S. Department of Energy, Los Alamos’s overseer, to put the lab’s management contract out for bid. The most recent incidents, in August 2017, included improper storage of plutonium metal.

CSince 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 lab’s central mission may well be updated in the coming months: President Donald Trump’s administration’s Nuclear Posture Review, leaked to the media earlier this month, signaled interest in developing new low-yield nuclear weapons, even as some of the lab’s most knowledgeable weapons experts are nearing retirement age. 
ScienceInsider caught up with Wallace, 61, a geophysicist and Los Alamos native, at a site near his perch in the high-security “Emerald Palace”—the lab’s jade-hued glass administrative building—to 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 didn’t know it was any different from anywhere else in the world. We had a vibrant community: It valued 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 aspects about it that weren’t so favorable. When I was growing up in Boy Scouts, we collected depleted uranium instead of aluminum cans as fundraisers.

Q: You’ve 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: We’re 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. That’s 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. We’re 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. That’s a hard thing, but that’s what we need to be able to do.

Q: With all the negative attention from the security breaches, has the staff’s morale been shaken?

A: I do think morale is shaken. They feel like they’ve 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, you’re committing to a lifetime of polygraphs. We don’t do this lightly.

Q: In the wake of the safety breaches, the lab’s management contract is up for bid. Does the prospect of being a short-term director factor into how you make decisions, and are you feeling a sense of urgency to accomplish as much as possible?

A: Our top priority is to manage through transition, not to transition. I don’t know what’s going to happen and indeed, it could be a short term. I don’t 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, of course this is my home. I’m deeply part of the New Mexico community, and I can’t 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, we’re 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. It’s a big deal. It’s 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 that’s 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 world—whether they be peers, adversaries, or rogue countries, such as North Korea—what 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 nation’s 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 we’re assigned in the future, but we don’t opine or provide input on what that policy should be. We will execute the mission and what we’re 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. There’s only been three [such reviews]. And so, when they come, they are significant documents 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: We’re in one of the biggest transitions we’ve ever had in the laboratory, just because of demographics. We have people around my age with firsthand knowledge of things who will be retiring. We’ve hired a lot of younger people, mainly through our postdoc program, and they’re outstanding. It’s Los Alamos’s 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 lab’s programs that aren’t tied to national security remain intact?

A: That’s a great question. If you look at most of the programs that we do here, we do those programs because they’re cutting-edge science, but they have a connection back to national security. I feel we are actually less at risk in the present environment than many other places, because we have that connection.