Change is coming to Los Alamos National Laboratory — and it’s important that Northern New Mexico residents pay attention to what is happening on the Hill.
There is the nuclear laboratory’s evolving mission, with the lab expanding plutonium pit production for nuclear weapons. By 2026, LANL is being asked to build 30 pits a year; another 50 pits are supposed to be built at the Department of Energy’s Savannah River Site in South Carolina.
Expanded production means upgrades to aging buildings and equipment, with the lab’s PF-4 building, where plutonium is processed, a focus. But that’s just one part of what could be a decadelong construction binge at the nuclear facility — everything from building new parking garages, replacing aging buildings and equipment, as well as maintaining roofs and improving heating and cooling systems to create the perfect environment for the next generation of supercomputers.
Even if there were to be no plutonium pit production, the lab’s mission of stockpile stewardship of aging weapons continues, as does its work in nonproliferation, environmental cleanup and the numerous pure scientific initiatives. Because so many buildings at the lab are aging, to keep up with its work, modernization is necessary.
Along with construction work — at a price tag in the billions, once the money is awarded and spent — LANL Director Thom Mason says the lab is hiring additional workers, about 1,000 a year for the foreseeable future. Of those, about half are new, with the remainder replacing retiring scientists and other lab workers. Mason called it the biggest increase in hiring in at least 30 years, and lab officials expect the jobs boom to continue at least through 2023.
Barring a change in direction from Washington — whether because of a new president with different priorities or funding cuts — LANL is in an expansion mode.
And what does that mean to Northern New Mexico? Consider that this year, around $400 million in money spent for subcontractors has gone to New Mexico companies, also hiring because of the work. Over half the new lab hires, too, are from New Mexico, Mason said.
With other employees coming from out of state, expect a greater demand for housing. Even as Santa Fe continues to focus on building up its housing supply, more will be needed, whether in Los Alamos, nearby communities or perhaps by exploring partnerships with Native tribes. If a pueblo can build a casino, why couldn’t that same pueblo turn a vacant building into apartments? Or build new apartments from scratch?
Possibilities abound, with cooperation between lab, state, regional, tribal and municipal officials more essential than ever before.
Lab director Mason has expressed interest in a new highway to Los Alamos, something which we have said is a bad idea, given the cost of construction and potential damage to the natural world. However, could the lab work more closely with appropriate agencies to bring in alternative transit opportunities, so that more employees can leave cars and trucks behind? Reducing congestion to and from Los Alamos would benefit all involved — drivers, residents of nearby communities who breathe in exhaust fumes and lab officials who want workers to arrive rested and ready to produce. The solution should not be putting more cars on the road, even as additional workers are commuting.
Other important investments are taking place in institutes of higher education, with University of New Mexico-Los Alamos, for example, making it easier for potential mechanical engineers to receive four-year degrees through distance learning. One workforce development initiative involves Northern New Mexico College, which now offers a two-year program to train radiological control technicians. The lab needs more machinists, with a program at Central New Mexico Community College.
Continuing the various initiatives, of course, will require greater communication.
The laboratory, given its classified missions and mysterious beginnings as a top-secret project in World War II, is used to going it alone. That’s why it was refreshing to see lab officials outline the projected growth of the next decade to construction companies last summer. The potential investment is $5 billion over five years and $13 billion over the next decade. While critics rightly point out these aren’t necessarily long-term jobs, they do have the potential to keep workers going full-tilt for years, bringing stability to an industry that has faced its share of ups and downs.
By keeping potential contractors, workers and area governments informed, LANL can make it more likely for whatever work does occur to involve New Mexico companies, employ locals and keep money in the regional economy. Ties that have grown frayed at times between the Hill and the region can be strengthened.
As Mason said in a recent interview, “The Hill is not an island, but sometimes it feels like it is. I don’t think we’re going to be successful if we take that view.”
And success in Los Alamos, as it happens, should be shared so the entire region thrives.