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

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 further infractions in August 2017— including improper storage of plutonium metal that could have triggered an uncontrolled fission reaction—prompted the U.S. Department of Energy, Los Alamos’s overseer, to put the lab’s 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.

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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.

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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.

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