Three months into his tenure as the 12th director of Los Alamos National Laboratory, Thomas Mason acknowledged that fixing the lab’s problems is going to take time, and setbacks could prevent Los Alamos from meeting key nuclear production goals.
But Mason said transforming the lab’s culture to one in which success is replicated — department to department, day after day — is the key to long-term success.
“The most important thing is to become more of a learning organization — where we can take practices [that work] and move them from one part of the organization to the next, and we can respond to stuff that happens … in a way that gets better over time,” Mason said in a recent interview.
“It is tricky,” he added. “There are 12,000 people who work at the lab every day.”
Mason, who took over at Los Alamos in November, has spent his first weeks learning more about the lab as it transitions to its new operator, Triad National Security LLC, a consortium led by the University of California, Battelle Memorial Institute and Texas A&M University. The consortium was awarded the multibillion-dollar contract to run Los Alamos in June and assumed control in November.
Mason, 54, also serves as president and CEO of Triad. Before taking the helm at Los Alamos, he served as senior vice president for global laboratory operation at Battelle. He also spent 19 years at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, 10 as lab director.
He comes to Los Alamos at a time when the lab is under scrutiny over years of struggles with safety issues and high-profile accidents while also being tasked by the federal government with increasing production of plutonium pits in the next several years.
In the lab’s most recent performance review, the National Nuclear Security Administration found an increase in security incidents prior to the leadership change. And a recent report from the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, which provides independent advice to Energy Secretary Rick Perry and President Donald Trump, found the lab’s plutonium facility had not resolved several recurring problems and was failing to meet Department of Energy and industry standards for nuclear safety.
The plutonium facility, known as PF-4, has been tasked by the federal government with handling increasing quantities of nuclear material in order to produce dozens of plutonium pits in the coming years. The grapefruit-sized plutonium metal cores are used to trigger nuclear weapons.
However, the lab has recently only built “development” pits, which are not used for the stockpile.
“If we continue to have operational upsets,” Mason said, “we will not meet the 30 pits per year mission objectives by 2026.”
Mason acknowledged a shortage in staffing had contributed to problems and created a “backlog today in terms of critically safety evaluations.” He was referring to technical reviews conducted to ensure the lab is doing everything possible to prevent a runway chain reaction.
To bridge the gap in available talent, he said, Texas A&M was incorporating nuclear criticality training into its nuclear engineering program.
Mason said Los Alamos’ ongoing safety problem were being addressed, but he acknowledged past missteps — including a shutdown of the lab’s plutonium facility in 2013 — do have an effect.
“There is nothing more frustrating than working in a facility that is not operating because of issues with safety or security,” Mason said. “Everyone that I have encountered is very much on board with the idea that we need to do better.”
On the safety front, the safety board recently found it will take the lab 11 years to upgrade a necessary fire suppression system able to withstand an earthquake, among other important safety upgrades that are years off.
Mason said that while he hopes to see improvements this year, it will be an ongoing process and specific milestones — which he did not outline — will need to be met to stay on track.
In addition to senior-level organizational changes at the lab’s high-hazard facilities, Mason said he intends to establish a new relationship with the lab’s subcontractors, improve how the lab learns from smaller incidents, and write procedures that workers are better able to follow.
Mason added the lab has already had some issues it is “learning from” in the first three months of the new contract.
In mid-December, a subcontractor working near a lab warehouse was struck by a hoisting apparatus. The worker sustained injuries to his face and arm, and was treated at an Albuquerque hospital, according to a lab spokesman. The incident triggered an accident investigation by the lab and the NNSA.