A year after new managers took over, weapons program commitments have brought enough growth to Sandia National Laboratory’s Livermore campus that finding on-site space to work and off-site living quarters for new employees is proving a challenge.
Sandia-California was originally established in 1956 with only a handful of employees. Over the past 60 years, staffing has generally been below 1,000.
Today, employees number about 1,300 plus subcontractors, post doctoral fellows and students. “Space here on site is a little bit of a problem,” according to Dori Ellis, Laboratory Associate Director.
The new management is National Technology and Engineering Solutions of Sandia, or NTESS, a limited liability corporation. NTESS is a wholly owned subsidiary of Honeywell International, supported by Northrop Grumman and Universities Research Association.
NTESS replaced long-time manager Lockheed Martin on May 1 of last year. Ellis came in as the senior manager on site, bringing her past experience at Sandia headquarters in Albuquerque, at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and at the University of California’s Office of the President.
To meet its current weapons program commitments, Sandia has hired about 50 new employees and made job offers to 40 more, Ellis said in an interview. She expects some further hiring before year’s end and comparable growth next year.
Regional housing costs are a challenge for those moving from less expensive areas, which means most of the U.S. Some of the new arrivals are commuting from as far away as Stockton.
Ellis cited a Sandia study indicating that it takes 3½ to 4 times the salary to build a median-priced home here as compared to Sandia’s home city of Albuquerque. To move here, “people really have to be of a mindset that they want to live in the Bay Area,” she said.
With its headquarters in New Mexico plus its Livermore site, Sandia is the largest of 17 U.S. Department of Energy national laboratories. Its original purpose was to support the nuclear design laboratories, Los Alamos in New Mexico and Lawrence Livermore in California.
That remains its biggest single job. However, it is highly diversified today, working in a wide variety of energy, transportation, high performance computing, environment and other programs -- some national defense related, some not.
For Sandia and other laboratories operated under federal contracts, budgets rise and fall each new fiscal year. When Congress fails to pass a budget on time, which seems to be the norm in these days of political gridlock, new funding may not arrive until the year is half over.
When that happens in a growth year like this one, spending and hiring have to be crammed into a narrower window of time, increasing administrative and HR challenges.
The current growth at Sandia’s Livermore site is driven mainly by a $100 million boost in nuclear weapons research, specifically a Life Extension Program for the W80-4 warhead.
The original W80 was designed at Los Alamos for use on cruise missiles and first deployed in the early 1980s. The W80-4 is the latest version of the warhead.
Like all U.S. nuclear weapons, the W80 has been in service well beyond its originally intended lifetime. Like other technological objects, nuclear weapons have components that deteriorate and sometimes become obsolete with time.
Although the original design came from Los Alamos, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and Sandia-Livermore were given continuing maintenance responsibility, both because of past technical contributions and because it is government policy to maintain skills and knowledge at two national centers in the legally restricted field of nuclear weapons design.
Over the next several years, working alongside LLNL, Sandia will renew and replace parts in its areas of responsibility as needed to keep the aging warhead functional well into the future.
In current planning, the updated W80-4 will arm a cruise missile called the Long Range Stand-Off weapon. It is expected to be deployed about a decade from now on B-52, B-2 and B-21 aircraft.
The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) has taken pains to assure that arms control and congressional promises are being kept. The updated W80-4 “will yield no operational capability not already found in the nuclear stockpile,” according to an NNSA statement.
NNSA is a semi-autonomous arm of the U.S. Department of Energy, responsible for the U.S. nuclear weapons complex including the efforts of Lawrence Livermore, Sandia and Los Alamos National Laboratories.
The general backdrop for the current growth in weapons programs is a judgment reached during the Obama Administration and restated in the Trump Administration’s Nuclear Posture Review last February: the U.S. must modernize and upgrade its nuclear weapons capabilities because the world has returned to an era of great power rivalry.
Organizations like the Arms Control Association and the Union of Concerned Scientists have made it clear that they consider this argument self-defeating and that increased emphasis on nuclear weapons makes the world more dangerous, not less.
Transfers and Local Hires
Because another Life Extension Program is now winding down in New Mexico – this one for the B61-12 bomb -- Sandia is able to move some of its Albuquerque staff to Livermore to work on the growing W80-4 LEP, according to Associate Director Ellis.
Such workers typically have security clearances already and are able to contribute immediately.
New staff hired from outside may be highly qualified but unable to start work on a classified program because background clearance investigations are taking many months to complete – sometimes more than a year, according to Ellis.
For years, the clearance process has been notoriously slow. Former employees tell of waiting six months or more. However, the pace has become more turgid still since Chinese computer hackers reportedly stole millions of personal security files from the federal Office of Personnel Management in 2015.
There is no shortage of unclassified technical work at Sandia, but it is difficult for a new employee to become fully immersed in a weapons program like the W80-4 LEP without a clearance.
Asked about the need for new facilities or equipment, Ellis said that Sandia’s highest priority for upgrade is in Albuquerque, where the 250-person Microelectronics Fabrication Facilities are some 30 years old.
These aging facilities perform a vital national function, she said. In addition to providing support work at both the Livermore and Albuquerque sites, they generate “trusted” electronic components for high-value Defense Department applications.
Still another challenge to growth is the intense competition for certain jobs, such as those requiring advanced computer skills, especially so close to Silicon Valley where private companies can pay high salaries to technically outstanding individuals.
“While we cannot offer the salaries that some private companies are offering, the urgency of the mission work and the quality of life for our staff offer benefits that cannot be matched in the private sector,” Ellis said.
Reflecting on the first anniversary of its contract change, Ellis said, Sandia’s Livermore site is “a very vibrant place.”
Despite what she called “a fair amount of churn” as a new management team arrived, “the people here have just kept producing.
“I can’t tell you how proud I am of the work being done here.”