BY MAYOR O’NEILL
Los Alamos National Laboratory Director Thom Mason spoke at length during Tuesday night’s virtual community town hall about nuclear deterrence and the period of mission growth the lab is currently carrying out at LANL.
“The nation is asking the lab to take on increased national security missions and that has been reflected in the growth of the budget and of course that budget growth translates into an increase in the workforce. Over the past two years, we’ve seen the lab’s budget grow by about $1.5 billion a year and that’s added about 2,500 people to our staff,” Mason said.
He noted that the main driver behind this is really the national security mission of nuclear deterrence, nuclear non-proliferation which is “the foundation of laboratory missions” and is driven by a few factors.
“First of all, the nuclear deterrence that is the backbone of our national security as a nation has been over the past decades through what is called stockpile stewardship, an exercise in taking care of the deterrent that we have, but which has aged and was built largely in the 80s and we are now going through a period where we have to modernize, “he said. “We have to replace the aging components of these systems. It’s not about increasing the size of our deterrent force or adding capabilities. We just need to make sure that the deterrent we have is safe, secure and reliable, and that requires some of our this investment.
As context for this, Mason said it’s important to think about the world around us. He said that when the Cold War ended, there was hope that the United States would move toward a world where nuclear deterrence was less important.
“That’s not the world we find ourselves in in 2022,” he said.
Mason said he had the privilege of meeting with President Biden when he was in Santa Fe last Saturday, primarily to learn about the fires in New Mexico.
“We had the opportunity to talk about the Cerro Pelado fire and the measures that the laboratory and the firefighters took to protect us from it. But we also talked a bit about the situation in Ukraine and the fact that Vladimir Putin, the President of Russia, has not been shy about being very threatening and belligerent in his invocation of nuclear weapons in this conflict and the response of the states United with that has certainly been that of trying to do everything to enable Ukraine to defend itself without coming into direct conflict with a nuclear-armed adversary,” he said. “It’s kind of a reasonable thing to ask, ‘What is the meaning of deterrence?’ in this context, and I think that the role that deterrence currently plays in Ukraine, both on the Russian side and on the American side, is to try to limit this conflict.
Mason said Russia had made it clear in its statements that it did not want the United States or European countries to enter the conflict directly and had made very threatening statements about its nuclear capabilities.
“At the same time, the United States and NATO allies have made it clear that invading Ukraine is unacceptable, but going beyond that to NATO would totally change the situation and when the president says, ‘Not an inch of NATO territory,’ what’s behind that statement is our deterrent,” Mason said. “So deterrence plays an important role so far in limiting that conflict and why it matters is that we have seen in the past where conflicts that start in a particular place in Europe can spread.”
He noted that in 1939, when Nazi Germany and two weeks later Soviet Russia invaded Poland, it became World War II, and World War I began with the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand, which also spread to become a global conflict.
“Containing the conflict, as terrible as it is, is something important if we don’t want to get drawn into this kind of conflict. The nuclear deterrent mission at Los Alamos National Laboratory is part of what allows the United States to make “Not an Inch of NATO Territory” type declarations to contain the conflict. It’s also quite frankly why the United States has been unwilling to impose things like no-fly zones or engage directly militarily,” Mason said. “Nuclear deterrence acts as a constraint.”
He said that one of his predecessors, possibly Harold Agnew, once said that the role of nuclear weapons is to impose restraint on leaders so that they have time to find other solutions.
“This role is as important today as it has ever been. With this growth comes a need to increase our operational capability, which is essential to meet these mission requirements for decades to come. There is a part of that, which is the infrastructure; we need to revitalize our infrastructure on the Lab site. We have installations that are aging and need to be updated or replaced, but that’s not the only tool in the toolbox; we also rent property, work on transport to facilitate travel between different places, where people live and where they work. And of course we rely heavily on the construction workforce of the contracting community to help us do all of this,” Mason said.
He noted that in addition to infrastructure, what accompanies growth is hiring.
“We are on track this year, FY 2022, to hire 2,000 people in addition to the 2,500 who have already joined the Laboratory. In fact, in the first six months of the fiscal year (since October 1), we hired 1,015 people. I can multiply by two, which means we should earn 2,000 when added to the second half of the fiscal year. We do this by stepping up our recruitment, bringing in interns and setting up special programs to hire on the spot quickly. It’s a very competitive job market, but we have an important mission and I’m happy to see that we’re finding the people we need with the skills we need,” Mason said.
Editor’s Note: Watch the Los Alamos Reporter for an additional report on other issues Dr. Mason addressed at Tuesday’s event.