Thom Mason knew two issues by the point he entered highschool.
He wished to be a scientist, and he not wished to play hockey, a sport that’s standard in his native Nova Scotia but additionally one that may do its share of bodily harm.
Mason recalled how he misplaced a tooth and a teammate misplaced an eye fixed.
Mason as a substitute threw himself into science, which generally has a decrease danger of maiming, and his devotion was obvious by the point he hit his midteens: His highschool yearbook says he deliberate to check and apply physics.
“Which is kind of what I wound up doing,” recalled Mason, now the director of Los Alamos Nationwide Laboratory. “It by no means occurred to me to do anything.”
Mason’s obsession with the sphere — coupled with what buddies say is a disarming capacity to win converts on topics which have little to do with physics’ interior workings — has led him to one of many hardest, most high-profile jobs throughout the U.S. nuclear weapons complicated. About to enter his third yr because the lab’s head and president of Triad Nationwide Safety LLC, Mason and Los Alamos are at a key juncture because the lab will get nearer to the controversial manufacturing of plutonium pits, the softball-sized cores that set off nuclear warheads.
Mason, 56, acknowledges many within the space don’t approve of the nuclear weapons program at Los Alamos, not to mention plans to provide 30 pits by 2026, with the flexibility to surge to 80. However he additionally says it’s necessary for folks to know that modernizing the nation’s nuclear stockpile doesn’t essentially imply increasing it.
He stated he believes strongly that getting older nuclear parts, together with pits, have to be changed to maintain the weapons secure and efficient as a deterrent towards potential adversaries. Every older warhead is rebuilt, so the general quantity doesn’t improve, he stated.
“The modernization program is principally taking the weapons methods that type our deterrent … and refreshing them to allow them to proceed to function that final guarantor of our safety,” Mason stated.
Mason’s calm, virtually matter-of-fact reasoning, nevertheless, doesn’t quell what stays a fierce debate. Some argue the navy ought to use the hundreds of leftover pits produced on the now-defunct Rocky Flats web site in Colorado throughout the Chilly Struggle. A 2019 report launched by the Nationwide Science Basis suggests the pits have a shelf lifetime of roughly 100 years.
However Mason contends that the pits’ properties can change over time, which implies a 40-year-old machine will not be the identical as one that’s model new.
“The present stockpile was deployed within the ’80s, and it’s getting outdated,” Mason stated. “You’ve gotten some parts just like the plutonium pits which might be radioactive, and which means they generate warmth. So stuff wears out.”
Greg Mello, govt director of the nonprofit Los Alamos Examine Group, a longtime lab watchdog, stated authorities consultants have informed him that pits certainly change as they age, however not a lot that almost all can’t be used after 40 years.
A part of what’s driving new pit manufacturing is the navy wanting to exchange all three warheads on a number of the Minuteman III missiles when one warhead would do, Mello stated.
“Though the getting older of pits is a gradual, well-understood, actual phenomenon,” Mello stated, “it’s not the actual driver of what’s occurring.”
Both manner, Mason carries on.
Not only a scientist
Although science was Mason’s chosen area, it additionally was in his DNA as he grew up in Nova Scotia, principally in Halifax.
His father is a geophysicist; his mom has a biochemistry diploma. Most of his dad and mom’ buddies have been scientists and lab researchers.
“So in that sense I used to be kind of a lab brat, if you’ll,” Mason stated.
When hockey proved too brutal, he discovered different pursuits, together with swimming, pictures and tenting. He additionally labored as a lifeguard. However they have been sidelights.
Mason acquired a bachelor’s diploma in physics from Dalhousie College in Nova Scotia and a doctorate in experimental condensed matter physics from McMaster College in Ontario. He served on the college on the College of Toronto’s physics division earlier than touchdown a job within the late Nineteen Nineties at Oak Ridge Nationwide Laboratory in Tennessee.
Mason, now a U.S. citizen, labored at Oak Ridge for twenty years, together with 10 years as its director.
He then spent a few yr at Battelle — a key member of the Triad consortium — as senior vice chairman, serving to to supervise governance and technique at six nationwide labs, together with Oak Ridge. The world’s largest nonprofit analysis and growth firm, Ohio-based Battelle manages eight nationwide labs and designs and manufactures high-tech merchandise for each authorities and trade.
Alongside the way in which, buddies and colleagues say, Mason developed a repute for a peaceful, considerate strategy, however not simply to science or physics. His capacity to guide, study and achieve the boldness of fellow workers made a distinction.
“He’s the neatest particular person I’ve ever met,” stated Ron Townsend, govt vice chairman of Battelle’s lab operations.
Townsend, who labored with Mason for greater than a decade, stated he admires Mason’s capacity to go exterior his regular sphere of science and oversee building, engineering, administration and different ground-level duties.
The various ability set proves helpful as he takes on big constructing and renovation initiatives at Los Alamos, Townsend stated.
These efforts embrace changing the lab’s chemistry and metallurgy facility and overhauling the plutonium facility, each important in producing pits.
A condensed matter physicist, Mason got here to Los Alamos with little expertise with nuclear weapons. Nonetheless, he stated he feels the lab was a pure development from the work he had finished at Oak Ridge. The distinction? Oak Ridge is a science and vitality establishment that does nationwide safety work, and Los Alamos is a nationwide safety lab that does science and vitality work, he stated.
“LANL is form of an iconic lab,” Mason stated. “You would argue that Los Alamos created the idea of a nationwide lab.”
At Oak Ridge, Mason totally researched that lab’s historical past and the way earlier administrators dealt with operations, then used what he discovered to enhance the lab, Townsend stated, including he’s doubtless doing the identical at Los Alamos, the place questions of safety have plagued the lab previously a number of years.
“He’s very accessible,” Townsend stated. “As a result of he’s so sensible and is at all times in a considerate mode, typically one can have the primary impression that he is likely to be disengaged. However by no means, ever interpret that. He places a variety of emotional vitality into participating with folks.”
Becky Rowley, the president of Santa Fe Neighborhood School, stated Mason met together with her a number of instances to debate revamping the faculty’s coaching program for machinists so college students might purchase the abilities wanted to work on the lab.
Mason might’ve had an underling act as a liaison however selected to attend conferences and get personally concerned, she stated.
“He’s community-minded, and really proactive to succeed in out to us … to learn the way we will work collectively higher,” Rowley stated. “He’s very personable. He’s very approachable.”
However a longtime lab watchdog complains that Mason is much less accessible to these he views as essential of Los Alamos.
“I’ve requested for a gathering with him. He hasn’t responded,” stated Joni Arends, govt director of Involved Residents for Nuclear Security. “I don’t have the interplay with him the way in which I’ve had with different lab administrators.”
The perceived snub is extra pronounced as a result of Mason does a variety of group outreach, Arends stated.
A fancy downside
Mason, who resides in Santa Fe together with his spouse (the couple have two grownup youngsters), stated he was drawn to Los Alamos due to the necessary function it performs in nationwide safety and for its repute as a powerful scientific establishment that encourages vigorous debate amongst its staffers.
To date, the lab has lived as much as its repute, he added.
Mason stated he got here in partly to sort out issues — equivalent to flawed day by day operations and subpar services — his predecessors left behind.
“I used to be stunned to see the state of a number of the services that we ask our employees to do cutting-edge analysis in,” Mason stated. “It could have been leading edge in 1955, nevertheless it’s not the case. It’s going to be a giant job over the following a few years to take care of that.”
The plutonium facility at Los Alamos, referred to as PF-4, is excessive on the checklist of areas that require modernization, given the potential of pit manufacturing. Gear was changed this yr, however there may be nonetheless a lot work to do, Mason stated.
Mello stated he doubts whether or not the Nineteen Seventies-era facility might ever be renovated sufficient to soundly produce 30-plus pits a yr, irrespective of how a lot cash is spent. Boosting plutonium operations additionally works towards the lab attempting to enhance its broader infrastructure, he stated.
“The hassle to make infrastructure secure can be a lot simpler and cheaper if the lab weren’t additionally attempting to rent hundreds of individuals to have a a lot bigger laboratory with a a lot expanded mission,” he stated.
One other historic, long-running downside is the lab’s huge legacy waste from the Chilly Struggle period.
Mason stated his fundamental focus as Triad president is the newer waste, which incorporates the residue generated by plutonium operations.
Newport Information Nuclear BWXT, also referred to as N3B, a contractor, is answerable for eradicating waste produced earlier than 1999. Most of that waste is within the lab’s Space G disposal web site.
However critics like Arends say the lab director’s consideration ought to be targeted on legacy waste, partially as a result of it’s extra harmful and the a whole lot of barrels of outdated waste on Los Alamos property have the potential to blow up. She pointed to a current Protection Nuclear Amenities Security Board report that stated unstable chemical substances throughout the waste haven’t been correctly assessed.
As well as, Arends stated the lab has containers of tritium-tainted waste that pose a hazard. 4 can be vented to launch built-up radioactive vapors to forestall the drums from rupturing if moved.
“For a director and president of a restricted legal responsibility company to not take duty for all the laboratory is an issue,” Arends stated.
Mason stated he takes a eager curiosity in N3B’s cleanup efforts and can do no matter he can to help them, however he reiterated that legacy waste is the contractor’s duty.
“We’re primarily targeted on the waste related to our ongoing operations and ensuring that doesn’t develop into somebody’s future legacy downside,” Mason stated.
Main various missions
Mason thinks science has two key sides: attaining a deeper understanding of how the world works, after which utilizing that data to enhance folks’s lives.
“If you happen to take a look at the affect that scientific progress writ giant has had on our lifestyle, our high quality of life, our well being, our safety, it has been a strong instrument in lifting us out of the darkish ages,” Mason stated.
Roughly 69 % of the lab’s $3 billion finances goes to its nuclear weapons program. The remaining 31 % is used for different applications, such because the Mars rover, renewable vitality, analysis into AIDS and novel coronavirus vaccines, synthetic intelligence and quite a lot of pc modeling.
The lab is also regularly growing and upgrading methods equivalent to a supercomputer for stockpile stewardship, a mission that’s rising ever extra complicated, Mason stated.
Mason and the administrators of Lawrence Livermore and Sandia nationwide laboratories are tasked annually with making certain the security, reliability and efficiency of every kind of nuclear weapon within the nation’s arsenal. Additionally they should present that their simulations and pc modeling are ample and that no underground explosive testing is required.
The U.S. hasn’t detonated a nuclear bomb underground since 1992.
“There has not been a difficulty that has emerged that has required an underground take a look at,” Mason stated. “I see it as a part of my job to ensure that we’ve got the instruments essential to reply questions that may emerge sooner or later so it isn’t vital.”
Arends famous that, on Oct. 24, the fiftieth nation ratified the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which can put it into pressure in 90 days. Though the U.S. and different nuclear powers haven’t signed it, she believes worldwide strain will develop for these international locations to section out nuclear arms and even be part of the pact.
“What’s the plan when LANL is just not making any extra plutonium pits or modernizing plutonium pits?” Arends stated. “He [Mason] is the chief. What’s the plan?”
Mason brushes apart that notion, arguing the prospect appears a few years sooner or later, past his lifetime. However even in a world the place nuclear weapons have been phased out, he stated, there can be nationwide safety challenges that referred to as for scientific and technological experience Los Alamos might provide.
For now, the lab is trying on the foreseeable future, which incorporates getting ready for pit manufacturing and devising new strategies to check nuclear weapons. That entails instilling in staff the drive to study from errors and enhance, he stated.
“Within the enterprise we’re in, working nuclear services, accelerators … there’s not a variety of margin for error,” Mason stated. “If you happen to’re not targeted on what might go unsuitable, then you might have a fairly dangerous day.”