By now, most of the equipment from the dawn of the Atomic Age has found its way to a museum.
But some facilities at Los Alamos National Laboratory — the nation’s foremost nuclear weapons research center — date to the 1950s, said Thom Mason, LANL director.
That reality, coupled with the lab’s evolving mission, is spurring a $5 billion upgrade to aging buildings and equipment still in use in the 21st century, Mason said in an interview this week. Though state of the art when built during the Cold War, some aging infrastructure is now outdated.
More than 300 of 740 buildings the lab uses were built before 1970. Another 474 were built before 1990 and 543 before 2000, according to the lab.
Although much of the attention about upgrades has centered on the lab’s PF-4 building, which processes plutonium, other structures that need updating include the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Facility, which studies nuclear samples in support of national security programs, including plutonium pit production. The first parts of the 550,000-square-foot facility were built in 1952.
“At the end of the Cold War, there was an infrastructure that had been built across the country to support the nuclear deterrent,” Mason said. “And that was sized for a different time and built a long time ago. And there was a period of time when … we coasted on that legacy infrastructure.
“I think there were hopes that we were heading into a new world where we may wind up in a different position in terms of the global position for nuclear weapons,” he said. “And now we’re reaching the point where that aging infrastructure is … no longer fit for service, and we’re having to kind of re-gauge and look at what’s the right size and scale of infrastructure for the 21st century.”
The $1 billion-a-year upgrades come as LANL gears up to meet an increased production target of 30 plutonium pits per year by 2026. The radioactive, grapefruit-sized pits are the core of nuclear weapons.
Upgrades could continue climbing to more than $13 billion over 1o years, with congressional budget approvals.
Mason said the lab also is working on safety upgrades and two new parking structures to accommodate about 1,000 new workers hired every year. About half are to replace retiring workers, Mason said.
The plans raise concerns of some critics who say they’ve been unable to obtain site plans detailing the nature of the work to be done for the next five years and beyond.
“A lot more transparency is needed because this is a big program, and even if it were just restoring old Cold War buildings, the scale of the effort and the planned expansion of the lab by a few thousand people is a major undertaking,” said Greg Mello, executive director of the Los Alamos Study Group.
The lab, which for the past several years has struggled with safety problems — a 2019 Department of Energy report outlined persisting safety problems that went unresolved for more than a decade, including fire-protection issues, improper shipments of atomic materials and mislabeled hazardous waste — has made some improvements, said Mason, who took over as the lab’s director in late 2018.
“I wouldn’t say we’ve gotten to where we want to be this year,” he said. “It’s going to take several years to get that baked into the system. We need to be best in class, and we’re not yet.”
Mason said the LANL upgrades include work on constructing a new supercomputer called Crossroads that will replace the lab’s existing supercomputer, Trinity.
The computer is a key piece of technology that will be used in keeping tabs on the nation’s nuclear weapons stockpile after Trinity nears the end of its lifetime in 2021.
Crossroads will aid in “the ever-increasing computing requirements to support the weapons program,” according to a LANL document.