When Jill Hruby was named Director of Sandia National Laboratory in 2015, she became the first woman to head a major U.S. nuclear weapons laboratory.
Today, four years later, Hruby is no longer running a huge engineering and technology lab, but instead is focused on nuclear defense questions in a new and broader context.
Working at a nonprofit organization called the Nuclear Threat Initiative, she is examining international security issues that arise out of advancing technology such as the development of hypersonic weapons.
She is the Nuclear Threat Initiative’s first Sam Nunn Distinguished Fellow, a prestigious position established last year to honor the co-founder of the organization, former U.S. Senator Sam Nunn.
As a senator, Nunn was known for his deep understanding of nuclear weapons issues and his efforts to combat the dangers posed by the spread of nuclear weapons.
In an effort entailing major participation by Sandia, Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos National Laboratories, a program sponsored by Nunn and fellow Sen. Richard Lugar helped secure Russian nuclear weapons and materials in the chaos that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union.
After retiring from the Senate, Nunn cofounded the Nuclear Threat Initiative in 2001 with a view towards continuing the threat reduction effort.
For Hruby, the Nunn Distinguished Fellowship is a one-year position that will keep her in Washington much of the year while working out of her home in Albuquerque, perhaps one week per month.
The co-chair and chief executive officer of NTI, Ernie Moniz, said that “to identify our first Sam Nunn Distinguished Fellow, we looked for someone with the talents Sam embodies: an ability to identify new threats on the horizon, an interest in practical solutions, and the spirit of collaboration.
“We found them all in Jill.”
Moniz is a former physics professor at MIT, who served as Secretary of Energy under Barack Obama, as well as holding senior positions in earlier administrations.
Here in Livermore, the head of LLNL's Center for Global Security Research, Brad Roberts, called Hruby "ideally qualified to help define the needed innovations in policy that will help reduce nuclear risks.”
He and Hruby "collaborated as the nuclear laboratories geared up for the review of nuclear policy and posture" conducted in the early Trump Administration in 2017.
Hruby "played an essential role in bringing focus and analytic rigor to the effort," he said.
In an interview, Hruby said she expects to produce “at least one report” at NTI “about advances in technologies as they relate to nuclear weapons.”
She has a particular interest in the impact of hypersonic weapons systems being developed in the U.S., Russia and China. (Hypersonic typically refers to weapons traveling at Mach 5 – five times the speed of sound – or greater.)
Her work will be unclassified and should lead to published papers and presentations, she said.
Hruby is a mechanical engineer with a master’s degree from the University of California at Berkeley. She spent 27 years at Sandia’s Livermore site, followed by seven in Albuquerque.
During her final two years, she served both as director of the laboratory and president of Sandia Corporation, a subsidiary of the aerospace giant, Lockheed-Martin.
The corporation was the legal entity responsible for carrying out the contract to operate the laboratory.
Then Washington chose a new contractor to replace Lockheed-Martin, a subsidiary of Honeywell International called National Technology and Engineering Solutions of Sandia, or NTESS.
When that happened, senior executives like Hruby were replaced.
Departure was not instantaneous, however. Like others in responsible positions, Hruby spent the first months of 2017 in an intense effort to make the transition as smooth as possible so NTESS could be fully up to speed on May 1, when it took over.
By the time the transition was completed, Hruby was ready for a break.
After a few months, she re-engaged with governmental boards and studies that sought someone with her skills and knowledge. She will continue with some of those associations during the time she works at NTI.
At the end of the NTI fellowship, she is pretty sure she won’t want to return to a job as consuming as directing a major laboratory.
“If the future goes like the past, I will tend not to do anything full-time.”
“I had a great career. I’m grateful for that career (but) I’m looking for more free time than I had throughout my working life….But I also know that I have a somewhat unique experience and I want to make sure to still serve our country well.”
On the technical side, her experience is reflected by the range of projects and programs to which she contributed, either as a researcher or as a manager. A partial listing reflects some of Sandia’s great diversity of efforts: solar energy, nuclear weapons, counterterrorism, bio-defense and engineering sciences.
She holds several patents in microfabrication and won an R&D-100 award in solid state radiation detection technology.
On a personal basis, she is committed to doing what she can do “to encourage and accelerate more women in science and engineering, and to help change the culture so women are more likely to have long careers in these fields.”
In recognition of her efforts, Sandia created the Jill Hruby Fellowship Program and announced it in her honor as she was leaving the organization in May 2017.
The three-year fellowship “aims to develop women in the engineering and science fields who are interested in technical leadership careers in national security,” according to Sandia literature. (Despite the aspirational goal, male applicants are welcome and will be considered on an equal basis, a Sandia spokesperson said.)
Sandia’s chief research officer, Susan Seestrom, was chiefly responsible for creating the fellowship.
“I was ecstatic to see Jill Hruby as the first director of a (national security) lab,” she said.
The fellowships were “an opportunity to better connect with Sandia by honoring a leader that the workforce admired and create a vehicle to attract the best and brightest technical women to careers at Sandia.”
When Hruby answers questions, whether during an interview or a public talk, she comes across as forthright, offering information as clearly and openly as possible within classification restrictions.
In a briefing late last month at NTI, she presented a comprehensive outline of the so-called Certification process, that is, how the three weapons labs approach their yearly obligation to certify the safety and reliability of nuclear weapons that can’t be tested.
In the Q&A that followed, she appeared to do her best to fully answer questions about difficult topics ranging from international nuclear weapons, to morale in the weapons program workforce, to the quality of research in the Department of Energy laboratories.
In general, she believes the certification program is thorough and effective. The labs have been able to deal successfully with problems that inevitably arise as the weapons in the nuclear stockpile continue to age beyond expected lifetimes.
“I think we’re on solid ground in the so-called Modernization Program,” the national effort to extend the lives of the weapons, she said.
She readily acknowledges resource challenges, such as the difficulty of tasking manufacturing plants that were downsized years ago for cost savings to meet today's heavy Modernization Program workload demands.
In the much longer term, she also notes honest questions about the program’s future, especially because radioactive nuclear components age and change.
For example, she asks rhetorically, how many years will it take for plutonium components to degrade in a manner that might compromise reliability? “Do you believe in 50 years? 100 years? 150 years? 103 years?”
The weapons labs – especially Livermore and Los Alamos, which are responsible for a nuclear weapon’s “physics package” -- are doing what they can to determine the effects of aging by carrying out laboratory studies, but “these are really hard questions.”
The talk and the questions that followed were moderated by Ernie Moniz. They lasted well over an hour and can be viewed online at youtu.be/1OkWBvqeQ_Y.