In early 2018, the U.S. Senate confirmed Lisa Gordon-Hagerty as Administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration, or NNSA, putting her in charge of a $16.5 billion agency that is responsible for the safety, security and effectiveness of U.S. nuclear weapons.

Gordon-Hagerty became the first woman to fill the position, replacing an Air Force general who had held it the previous four years.

Last week, she visited two local facilities that play key roles in NNSA’s national security work, Lawrence Livermore and Sandia National Laboratories.

While at the Laboratories, she participated in several symbolic events, including groundbreaking for a new Emergency Operations Center at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL).

Her visit completed a circle of sorts, since her professional career began at LLNL.

Taking time out of the day’s activities for an interview, she recalled joining the Laboratory in 1986 as a “newly minted health physicist” from the University of Michigan. She soon had responsibility for ensuring safe operations in facilities where radioactive materials were handled in large quantities, including the Lab’s plutonium building.

The nation was still conducting full scale nuclear tests and would continue to do so until 1992. That meant intense periods of activity as nuclear materials were prepared for tests and debris samples were returned to the Laboratory for study.

Gordon-Hagerty remembers her admiration for “the great technician workforce.” It taught her essential operations, like the complex “bag-in, bag-out” procedures, by which radioactive materials and high efficiency filters are moved safely into and out of sealed containers called glove boxes.

If she were going to be responsible for verifying the safety of operations, she reasoned, she had better learn how the technicians did their jobs.

She left Livermore in 1989, climbing rapidly in a career that always retained a connection with the world of nuclear energy or nuclear weapons.

She gained political experience through two years of staff work for the House Energy and Commerce Committee, whose legislative oversight responsibilities include the U.S. Department of Energy and its national laboratories.

She then moved to the U.S. Department of Energy, where she headed its Office of Emergency Response before leaving in 1998 to lead the National Security Council’s anti-terrorism office.

After time in private industry, including the nuclear fuel enrichment business, she spent several years consulting on national security issues before being nominated to head NNSA in late 2017 and confirmed in early 2018.

A year ago, she was one of five senior officials considered by Donald Trump to replace John Bolton as National Security Advisor. That job went to Robert O’Brien, and Gordon-Hagerty remained at NNSA.

Aging facilities

In last week’s interview, Gordon-Hagerty expressed serious concern about the age of NNSA facilities, many of which date from World War II.

“We’re trying to modernize our infrastructure, 30 percent of which … was built during the Manhattan Project,” she said. The Manhattan Project was the secret World War II program to develop a nuclear weapon.

As one example, she noted that workers at the Y12 plant in Tennessee use a facility originally built in 1943 to process uranium for the nuclear weapons program and for naval reactors.

Such antiquated facilities are expensive and inefficient to operate at today’s standards of safety, environmental protection and reliability, but NNSA must do so because of a past lack of support for modernization, she said.

Today, she thinks the situation is improving, as NNSA has put forth a “strategic road map” that she feels can meet current and future needs, provided it gets enough support from Congress.

At Y12, for example, NNSA is building a $6.5 billion facility scheduled to replace the antiquated World War II uranium plant in 2025.

Moving to another strategic material, plutonium, she said NNSA expects to be able to manufacture at least 80 “pits” per year by 2030.

Pits are the plutonium cores of nuclear weapons. The U.S. gave up its ability to make them almost 30 years ago when it shuttered the Rocky Flats Plant in Colorado for environmental reasons.

The U.S. needs to restore manufacturing capability “if we want our nuclear deterrent to remain second to none,” she said.

Speaking of relations with Russia and China, Gordon-Hagerty called those countries “near-peer adversaries.”

For example, she said, “We know that China is looking to double their stockpile (of nuclear weapons).”

By contrast, she said, the U.S. is “the only nuclear weapons state that is neither designing nor fielding new nuclear weapons.”

Instead, she said, the U.S. is carrying out programs to extend the longevity of nuclear weapons originally designed to last 20 years so that they will be safe and reliable “out to 70 years and beyond.”

Every U.S. nuclear weapon has aged well past its design lifetime. The newest went into service in 1991.

Non-nuclear components

NNSA contends that its “life extension” efforts are not generating new nuclear weapons because their nuclear components and military purpose remain the same while aging. Non-nuclear components, like electronics and high explosives, may be updated to improve safety, security and other essential features.

Gordon-Hagerty said the NNSA laboratories and plants are carrying out four major nuclear weapon modernization programs today, with a fifth possible. This is an exceptionally heavy workload that can only be accomplished through “the scientific prowess here at Livermore and Los Alamos, Sandia and throughout our entire complex.”

Asked about the future of LLNL’s National Ignition Facility, the world’s largest laser system, she wrote in an email following her visit that NIF is “the best place to study the technical challenges and opportunities to ultimately achieve ignition” in fusion fuel, whether that goal is reached or not.

Ignition occurs when fusion reactions in a laser target become self-sustaining with a very large energy output. When NIF was dedicated in 2009, researchers hoped to demonstrate ignition within a few years.

Most were careful not to promise success, but the failure to achieve that goal was an embarrassment all the same. It left the Laboratory open to charges of over-promising and under-delivering.

Nevertheless, NIF has been a vital research tool for the nuclear weapons program.

“NIF’s role in the broader weapons program has expanded well beyond expectations over the past decade,” Gordon-Hagerty wrote.

“In parallel to advancing ignition science, the NIF enables the study of material properties, radiation flow, thermonuclear burn, and weapon outputs and effects, thus providing crucial experimental data for the long-term safety, security, and effectiveness of the nuclear stockpile.”