Los Alamos National Laboratory is a historic facility — literally.
Out of 740 structures, 316 were built before 1970 in the first half of the Cold War.
“Parts of it is a national historic park,” said Thom Mason, LANL’s director. “We completed categorizing every facility at the lab as red, green or yellow. There is more red than I am comfortable with.”
One “red” structure among the 8.5 percent of LANL buildings getting a red rating is the chemistry metallurgy research building that dates from the 1950s.
“We need to get out of there,” Mason said. “It needs to be retired.”
Beyond the 50- to 75-year-old buildings, 73 percent LANL’s structures were built before 2000. Only 15.5 percent of LANL’s inventory rates green.
LANL has outlined an initial five-year, $5 billion institutional infrastructure plan to upgrade the lab as it gears up for annual production of 30 nuclear pits — the triggers that set off nuclear weapons — by 2026. In all, the infrastructure improvements could reach $11.2 billion over 10 years, all subject to congressional budgeting approval, Mason said.
“Let’s inventory the existing inventory,” Mason said. “What do we want to keep? What do we want to get out of? What does it mean to the site layout?”
The laundry list ranges from mundane to the heart of LANL’s mission.
“Roofing is one thing we need to do,” Mason said. “A lot of roofing is substandard, as in leaking.”
LANL brought together some 700 construction company representatives in August at the Hilton Santa Fe Buffalo Thunder Casino and Resort to determine new ways to undertake contracting for the extensive construction expected at the lab, such as the roof work.
“Part of the conclusion we came to is if we continue to do things the same old way, we’re not going to get them contracted in” a timely manner, Mason said. “What if we group the roofs in a large package of things?”
Capital improvements are necessary to the PF4 Plutonium Facility to prepare the structure for full production of the 30 nuclear pits now in the development stage.
The Albuquerque-based Los Alamos Study Group, which seeks nuclear disarmament, is alarmed at the scale of expansion and upgrades at LANL.
“Thom Mason said all this is for 30 pits per year by 2026,” said Greg Mello, the study group’s executive director and co-founder. “LANL under the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019 has to plan to make up to 80 pits per year.”
Mello believes the $5 billion and ultimately $11.2 billion in LANL capital improvements resurrects the Cold War era.
“What LANL is doing is using its pit production mission to renew the entire laboratory,” Mello said. “We don’t need a nuclear weapons laboratory sized for the Cold War. We don’t need a new generation of nuclear weapons. This is an unprecedented plutonium mission for LANL in its scale and in its planned permanence.”
Mason said LANL also needs to make improvements such as new cooling towers, new electric distribution to bring in the next-generation “Crossroads” supercomputer, LANL’s third advanced technology system in its advanced simulation and computing program.
LANL also will build a facility to develop an Advanced Sources and Detectors accelerator that will be housed at the Nevada National Security Site.
More office space is also on the docket. “We have people doubled up and tripled up in office space,” Mason said.
LANL is hiring 1,000 people each year, which presents challenges beyond the mesa as the employee count now is 12,000. Mason said that in 1990, 60 percent of employees lived in Los Alamos, but now that is only 40 percent with many employees commuting from as far away as Albuquerque.
Los Alamos County is watching to see what actually transpires at the lab. LANL supplies some $50 million a year in gross receipts tax revenue to the county. About 90 percent of county revenue is associated with the lab, Los Alamos County Manager Harry Burgess said.
“Any new activity there will benefit the community as well,” Burgess said. “These are all plans at present. We’re interested to find out what actually comes to fruition.”
Los Alamos, however, is landlocked with little room for new housing. Mason is counting on surrounding communities and jurisdictions to build housing — and also roads and bridges and potentially a new highway with direct access to Interstate 25 to substantially cut the commute for the more than 10 percent of employees that drive in from Albuquerque.
“We need to build closer ties with surrounding communities,” he said.
Los Alamos was established in 1943 to design and build the first atomic bomb. Today’s mission includes nuclear security, nuclear materials, high-performance computing, sensor development and remote measures.