“LANL is kind of an iconic lab,” Thom Mason said. “You could argue that Los Alamos created the concept of a national lab.”
By Scott Wyland
Thom Mason knew two things by the time he entered high school.
He wanted to be a scientist, and he no longer wanted to play hockey, a sport that’s popular in his native Nova Scotia but also one that can do its share of physical damage.
Thom Mason recalled how he lost a tooth and a teammate lost an eye.
Thom Mason instead threw himself into science, which typically has a lower risk of maiming, and his devotion was apparent by the time he hit his midteens: His high school yearbook says he planned to study and apply physics.
“Which is more or less what I wound up doing,” recalled Thom Mason, now the director of Los Alamos National Laboratory. “It never occurred to me to do anything else.”
Mason’s obsession with the field — coupled with what friends say is a disarming ability to win converts on subjects that have little to do with physics’ inner workings — has led him to one of the toughest, most high-profile jobs within the U.S. nuclear weapons complex. About to enter his third year as the lab’s head and president of Triad National Security LLC, Thom Mason and Los Alamos are at a key juncture as the lab gets closer to the controversial production of plutonium pits, the softball-sized cores that trigger nuclear warheads.
Thom Mason, 56, acknowledges many in the area don’t approve of the nuclear weapons program at Los Alamos, let alone plans to produce 30 pits by 2026, with the ability to surge to 80. But he also says it’s important for people to understand that modernizing the nation’s nuclear stockpile does not necessarily mean expanding it.
He said he believes strongly that aging nuclear components, including pits, must be replaced to keep the weapons safe and effective as a deterrent against potential adversaries. Each older warhead is rebuilt, so the overall number doesn’t increase, he said.
“The modernization program is basically taking the weapons systems that form our deterrent … and refreshing them so they can continue to serve as that ultimate guarantor of our security,” Thom Mason said.
Thom Mason’s calm, almost matter-of-fact reasoning, however, doesn’t quell what remains a fierce debate. Some argue the military should use the thousands of leftover pits produced at the now-defunct Rocky Flats site in Colorado during the Cold War. A 2019 report released by the National Science Foundation suggests the pits have a shelf life of roughly 100 years.
But Thom Mason contends that the pits’ properties can change over time, which means a 40-year-old device may not be the same as one that is brand new.
“The current stockpile was deployed in the ’80s, and it’s getting old,” Thom Mason said. “You have some components like the plutonium pits that are radioactive, and that means they generate heat. So stuff wears out.”
Greg Mello, executive director of the nonprofit Los Alamos Study Group, a longtime lab watchdog, said government experts have told him that pits indeed change as they age, but not so much that most can’t be used after 40 years.
Part of what’s driving new pit production is the military wanting to replace all three warheads on some of the Minuteman III missiles when one warhead would do, Mello said.
“Although the aging of pits is a slow, well-understood, real phenomenon,” Mello said, “it’s not the real driver of what’s going on.”
Either way, Thom Mason carries on.
Not just a scientist
Though science was Mason’s chosen field, it also was in his DNA as he grew up in Nova Scotia, mostly in Halifax.
His father is a geophysicist; his mother has a biochemistry degree. Most of his parents’ friends were scientists and lab researchers.
“So in that sense I was sort of a lab brat, if you will,” Mason said.
When hockey proved too brutal, he found other pursuits, including swimming, photography and camping. He also worked as a lifeguard. But they were sidelights.
Science was his thing.
Mason got a bachelor’s degree in physics from Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, and a doctorate in experimental condensed matter physics from McMaster University in Ontario. He served on the faculty at the University of Toronto’s physics department before landing a job in the late 1990s at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.
Mason, now a U.S. citizen, worked at Oak Ridge for two decades, including 10 years as its director.
He then spent about a year at Battelle — a key member of the Triad consortium — as senior vice president, helping to oversee governance and strategy at six national labs, including Oak Ridge. The world’s largest nonprofit research and development company, Ohio-based Battelle manages eight national labs and designs and manufactures high-tech products for both government and industry.
Along the way, friends and colleagues say, Mason developed a reputation for a calm, thoughtful approach, but not just to science or physics. His ability to lead, learn and gain the confidence of co-workers made a difference.
“He’s the smartest individual I’ve ever met,” said Ron Townsend, executive vice president of Battelle’s lab operations.
Townsend, who worked with Mason for more than a decade, said he admires Mason’s ability to go outside his normal sphere of science and oversee construction, engineering, administration and other ground-level tasks.
The diverse skill set, especially with construction, proves useful as he takes on huge building and renovation projects at Los Alamos, Townsend said.
Those efforts include replacing the lab’s chemistry and metallurgy facility and overhauling the plutonium facility, both essential in producing pits.
A condensed matter physicist, Mason came to Los Alamos with little experience with nuclear weapons. Still, he said he feels the lab was a natural progression from the work he had done at Oak Ridge. The difference? Oak Ridge is a science and energy institution that does national security work, and Los Alamos is a national security lab that does science and energy work, he said.
“LANL is kind of an iconic lab,” Mason said. “You could argue that Los Alamos created the concept of a national lab.”
At Oak Ridge, Mason thoroughly researched that lab’s history and how previous directors handled operations, then used what he learned to improve the lab, Townsend said, adding that he’s likely doing the same at Los Alamos, where safety issues have plagued the lab in the past several years.
“He’s very accessible,” Townsend said. “Because he’s so brilliant and is always in a thoughtful mode, sometimes one can have the first impression that he might be disengaged. But never, ever interpret that. He puts a lot of emotional energy into engaging with people.”
Becky Rowley, the president of Santa Fe Community College, said Mason met with her several times to discuss revamping the college’s training program for machinists so students could acquire the skills needed to work at the lab.
Mason could’ve had an underling act as a liaison but chose to attend meetings and get personally involved, she said.
“He’s community-minded, and very proactive to reach out to us … to find out how we can work together better,” Rowley said. “He’s very personable. He’s very approachable.”
But a longtime lab watchdog complains that Mason is less accessible to those he views as critical of Los Alamos.
“I’ve asked for a meeting with him. He hasn’t responded,” said Joni Arends, executive director of Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety. “I don’t have the interaction with him the way I’ve had with other lab directors.”
The perceived snub is more pronounced because Mason does a lot of community outreach, Arends said.
A complex problem
Mason, who resides in Santa Fe with his wife (the couple have two adult children), said he was drawn to Los Alamos because of the important role it plays in national security and for its reputation as a strong scientific institution that encourages vigorous debate among its staffers.
So far, the lab has lived up to its reputation, he added.
Mason said he came in partly to tackle problems — such as flawed daily operations and subpar facilities — his predecessors left behind.
“I was surprised to see the state of some of the facilities that we ask our staff to do cutting-edge research in,” Mason said. “It may have been cutting edge in 1955, but it’s no longer the case. It’s going to be a big task over the next many years to deal with that.”
The plutonium facility at Los Alamos, called PF-4, is high on the list of areas that require modernization, given the possibility of pit production. Equipment was replaced this year, but there is still much work to do, Mason said.
Mello said he doubts whether the 1970s-era facility could ever be renovated enough to safely produce 30-plus pits a year, no matter how much money is spent. Boosting plutonium operations also works against the lab trying to improve its broader infrastructure, he said.
“The effort to make infrastructure safe would be much easier and cheaper if the lab weren’t also trying to hire thousands of people to have a much larger laboratory with a much expanded mission,” he said.
Another historic, long-running problem is the lab’s massive legacy waste from the Cold War era.
Mason said his main focus as Triad president is the newer waste, which includes the residue generated by plutonium operations.
Newport News Nuclear BWXT, also known as N3B, a contractor, is in charge of removing waste produced before 1999. Most of that waste is in the lab’s Area G disposal site.
But critics like Arends say the lab director’s attention should be focused on legacy waste, in part because it is more dangerous and the hundreds of barrels of old waste on Los Alamos property have the potential to explode. She pointed to a recent Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board report that said volatile chemicals within the waste haven’t been properly assessed.
In addition, Arends said the lab has containers of tritium-tainted waste that pose a hazard. Four will be vented to release built-up radioactive vapors to prevent the drums from rupturing if moved.
“For a director and president of a limited liability corporation to not take responsibility for the entire laboratory is a problem,” Arends said.
Mason said he takes a keen interest in N3B’s cleanup efforts and will do whatever he can to support them, but he reiterated that legacy waste is the contractor’s responsibility.
“We’re primarily focused on the waste associated with our ongoing operations and making sure that doesn’t become someone’s future legacy problem,” Mason said.
Leading diverse missions
Mason thinks science has two key facets: attaining a deeper understanding of how the world works, and then using that knowledge to improve people’s lives.
“If you look at the impact that scientific progress writ large has had on our standard of living, our quality of life, our health, our security, it has been a powerful instrument in lifting us out of the dark ages,” Mason said.
Roughly 69 percent of the lab’s $3 billion budget goes to its nuclear weapons program. The remaining 31 percent is used for other programs, such as the Mars rover, renewable energy, research into AIDS and novel coronavirus vaccines, artificial intelligence and a variety of computer modeling.
The lab also is continually developing and upgrading systems such as a supercomputer for stockpile stewardship, a mission that is growing ever more complex, Mason said.
Mason and the directors of Lawrence Livermore and Sandia national laboratories are tasked each year with ensuring the safety, reliability and performance of each type of nuclear weapon in the nation’s arsenal. They also must show that their simulations and computer modeling are sufficient and that no underground explosive testing is needed.
The U.S. hasn’t detonated a nuclear bomb underground since 1992.
“There has not been an issue that has emerged that has required an underground test,” Mason said. “I see it as part of my job to make sure that we have the tools necessary to answer questions that might emerge in the future so it isn’t necessary.”
Arends noted that, on Oct. 24, the 50th nation ratified the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which will put it into force in 90 days. Although the U.S. and other nuclear powers haven’t signed it, she believes international pressure will grow for these countries to phase out nuclear arms and even join the pact.
“What’s the plan when LANL is not making any more plutonium pits or modernizing plutonium pits?” Arends said. “He [Mason] is the leader. What’s the plan?”
Mason brushes aside that notion, arguing the prospect seems many years in the future, beyond his lifetime. But even in a world where nuclear weapons were phased out, he said, there would be national security challenges that called for scientific and technological expertise Los Alamos could offer.
For now, the lab is looking at the foreseeable future, which includes preparing for pit production and devising new methods to test nuclear weapons. That involves instilling in employees the drive to learn from mistakes and improve, he said.
“In the business we’re in, operating nuclear facilities, accelerators … there’s not a lot of margin for error,” Mason said. “If you’re not focused on what could go wrong, then you could have a pretty bad day.”
Originally published at Santafe new mexican