Andrew McIlroy, the new leader of the Livermore campus of Sandia National Laboratories, is taking on his management role at a time of considerable challenge.
Sandia has many programs, but its main responsibility is to help keep America’s nuclear weapons reliable and safe, even though every bomb, warhead and artillery shell in the arsenal is now older than its originally planned lifetime.
In fact, the weapons are older than the bright young engineers and scientists Sandia hires out of graduate school to work on them, meaning they trained on technologies that did not exist when the weapons were designed using now-obsolete computer codes.
Congress and the Administration are determined to modernize the nuclear weapons complex and extend the lives of the aging weapons themselves. That places heavy administrative, as well as technical, demands on the institution. Sandia needs new people, and it needs them now.
To McIlroy, these demands have led to “truly unprecedented growth” at Sandia’s Livermore site, a challenge that is particularly difficult because the Tri Valley and surroundings are financially intimidating for first-time home buyers.
If cost-of-living were one obstacle to hiring, so is the need to employ people able to get security clearances. Many of the technically talented young PhDs turned out by graduate schools today are non-citizens, and therefore unlikely to qualify.
The issue has always been present for Sandia, but is now exacerbated by increasingly tense and mistrustful relations with China, a major nuclear power and direct competitor for the U.S.
Restrictions on hiring are “a real conundrum for us as a Laboratory because we want to be involved in the open science world, be vigorously engaged there, and, at the same time, we have to balance our national security mission against that,” McIlroy said.
McIlroy’s job is formally called Associate Laboratories Director. With academic training in chemical physics, a discipline at the interface of chemistry and physics, he has extensive experience in the Laboratory’s defense, energy and environment programs.
The Livermore site started to grow slowly a decade ago when there were about 900 people on staff, he said in an interview last week. Growth has accelerated, and the laboratory is now adding 100 to 200 people every year.
Full-time staff numbers just under 1,500, a little more than one-tenth of Sandia’s overall employee count of about 14,000. Most work at the main Albuquerque site.
In contrast to Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos National Laboratories, which design the nuclear core of nuclear weapons, Sandia has responsibility for engineering the non-nuclear components of weapons, as well as integrating the entire weapon package.
Not surprisingly, recruiting emphasizes mechanical, electrical and systems engineers, sometimes bringing experienced people to Livermore from Albuquerque if they can afford to live in such an expensive part of the country.
Life Extension Programs
The efforts to keep aging U.S. nuclear weapons reliable and safe decades after they were deployed are called Life Extension Programs, or LEPs.
The biggest of the LEPs is the W80-4, managed from the Livermore site and carried out Sandia-wide at a cost of about $1 million a day.
The W80-4 is the latest version of the warhead that armed air-launched cruise missiles which were first deployed in 1982.
The upgraded system will yield no operational capability not already found in the nuclear stockpile, according to the National Nuclear Security Administration, the federal agency responsible for maintaining the reliability and safety of the nation’s nuclear weapons.
It is this agency, which is part of the U.S. Department of Energy, that overseas the biggest programs at Sandia, as well as at Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos National Laboratories.
When completed, the W80-4 will incorporate modern components and safety features and be engineered for use with a new cruise missile called the “long-range standoff,” or LRSO. This will be carried by several aircraft, including the B-52 and B-2.
Beyond ensuring the success of Sandia’s core nuclear weapons responsibilities, McIlroy would like to see closer laboratory collaborations with campuses such as the Davis and Berkeley campuses of the University of California.
In an earlier phase of his career, he had responsibility for Sandia’s Academic Alliances programs, which seek out such collaborations.
He believes the connection to universities “brings new perspectives to the laboratory (and) creates a pipeline for us to get new employees….”
It also “gives us a chance to have dialogues with universities about our future needs,” he said, while “giving us an opportunity to inform what new programs they develop. So we hope it’s a symbiotic kind of relationship.”
20 Years Ahead
To prepare Sandia for a rapidly evolving world, the Laboratory is now looking ahead 20 years rather than five or 10, as was the custom in the past, McIlroy said.
The longer term view has been encouraged by the overall director of the Laboratory, Steve Younger, a physicist who once worked at Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos National Laboratories.
“That (longer view) has really forced us in a good way to think about what the coming national security challenges are,” McIlroy said.
There is an “outside the box” dimension to the planning that may not come easily to a laboratory responsible for the safety and reliability of the nation’s nuclear weapons, McIlroy pointed out.
Sandia engineers live by the terse motto “Always/Never,” he said. The weapons must always work if commanded by an appropriate authority and never under any other circumstances.
That’s a “really challenging environment” that can lead to understandably cautious engineering practices, so one important component of the long-range planning is to modernize the practices themselves by incorporating recent advances in the field.
Overall, McIlroy said, the goal is to determine what investments the Laboratory should be making today “so that in 15 or 20 years we are ready when the nation says we have this problem, what can you do?”
Asked for an example, McIlroy cited the field of hypersonics, which refers to aircraft and missiles that travel at extreme speeds.
Sandia has a “rich history” in the field, which is rapidly evolving and will “probably…be very different five, 10, 20 years out.”