Remembering a 'true titan' of nuclear industry, Pete Lyons

May 6, 2021

Lyons Pete

Peter B. Lyons, who the Department of Energy's Office of Nuclear Energy (NE) called a "true titan" of nuclear industry, passed away in Golden, CO on Friday, April 29, following a year-long battle with cancer. Lyons was a distinguished scientist at Los Alamos, as well as a former commissioner at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. He also served as NE's assistant secretary.

“Pete Lyons was a selfless public servant, a gifted physicist, and above all a compassionate leader, advisor, and mentor,” said Los Alamos Director Thom Mason. “His legacy runs deep at Los Alamos National Laboratory, and his loss will be deeply felt on the Hill, in Washington, D.C., and beyond.”

U.S. Sen. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.) remembered Lyons as “a dedicated public servant and respected advisor of New Mexico policymakers and Cabinet secretaries" who shaped nuclear energy policy at Los Alamos and across the Department of Energy complex.

Early days in Nevada

Pete was born to Leland and Rita (née Horblit) Lyons in Hammond, IN on Feb. 23, 1943.

Although born in the Midwest, he spent his childhood in Boulder City, NV, just outside of Las Vegas. There, he developed a passion for the geology and topography of the American southwest and was a standout student and tennis player at his small, rural high school, ultimately becoming a Nevada state champion. He later joked that this wasn’t a major accomplishment, given the lack of people to play against.

The highlight of Pete's tennis career was playing in a national tournament against future Wimbledon champion Arthur Ashe. Pete noted that Ashe dispensed with him quickly.

Future partner for life

While in high school, he dated Peggy Wood, who he ultimately rejoined much later in life in Golden, CO, and who was a true partner, confidant and friend up until his final day.

Peggy and Pete lived in Golden together for many years and were able to share their mutual passions for geology, birding and traveling the world. Together, they completed more trips than it’s possible to count, but among the highlights of their traveling together were trips to the Svalbard Island in the arctic circle, and trips to Peggy’s ancestral home in Sweden. They also made trips together to trace the origins of Pete’s mother's family, among the Jewish villages of Ukraine and Poland.

Later in life, Pete developed a passion for genealogy and did extensive research in the past decade on his family tree, including working with researchers on early Jewish life and culture in Eastern Europe.

College years

After high school, Pete attended the University of Arizona where he met Elaine Meyer. Pete and Elaine quickly fell in love and were married after their junior year.

At the U of A, Pete completed degrees in physics and math, while Elaine majored in history. Later, Pete continued his education at the California Institute of Technology (CalTech), earning a doctorate in nuclear astrophysics. The couple developed lifelong friends while Pete was working in experimental physics within CalTech's Kellogg Radiation Laboratory.

During their summers at CalTech, Pete worked at China Lake Naval Air Station, east of Pasadena, CA. There, he used a slide rule to calculate (among other things) bomb drag coefficients for the U.S. military during the Vietnam War. On weekends, Pete and Elaine escaped into the beautiful Sierra Nevada Mountains, exploring seemingly every peak and high mountain lake one could find.

Passion for the outdoors

After CalTech, Pete and Elaine's passion for exploring the mountain west never waned, and it was among Pete's proudest legacies that all three of his children continue today in his footsteps backpacking and hiking in the mountains of New Mexico and Colorado.

Pete and Elaine had three boys, all born in Los Alamos, in the late 1960s and early 70s, and each went through the same ritual at age 5 of going on their first backpacking trip with their dad up to a small lake near the New Mexico-Colorado border called Duck Lake.

The ritual was always the same: Spend the night at a little motel in Chama, eat too many pancakes too early in the morning, and then hike what seemed to be nearly a hundred miles (only 3 in reality) in slippery mud to a beautiful lake with a flat-bottomed wooden raft that was available for boating around. Then, fish, fish and fish until you had caught 20 trout for dinner.

Early career, road to Los Alamos and D.C.

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Lyons, left, developing fiber-optics for use in underground testing.

Los Alamos, Nevada Test Site

After CalTech, Pete was offered a job at Los Alamos. His passion for the physics and the exciting work on the Hill was a perfect combination with the location where he and Elaine could continue to get into the mountains frequently. Pete worked at Los Alamos for more than 30 years in a range of scientific and leadership roles.

Early in his career, Pete traveled frequently to Santa Barbara, CA to work on developing diagnostics for experiments, and then spent even more time shuttling back and forth to the Nevada Test Site (NTS), during the era of underground nuclear testing.

At NTS, Pete developed novel diagnostics that were fielded on numerous experiments. He served as group leader of the diagnostics testing group (known as J-14, and then P-14) at the time, hiring and mentoring several generations of young staff members.

Underground testing

One of the developments Pete was most proud of in the early parts of his career at P-14 was the work that he and others did to transform the way data was collected in underground tests.

Initially, all of the data collected was sent up to recording stations on massive and heavy coax cables. Pete worked with a team to explore if newly developed fiber optic cables could be employed for this same purpose.

Pete's team developed a silicone gel that could be injected into the fiber optic cabling to ensure that there was no leakage of radiation from the experiment to the surface. These were ultimately employed in Nevada and dramatically reduced the weight of the cabling required.

With the P-14 group, Pete led or participated in virtually every NTS experiment during the 1970s and early 1980s. From there, he moved into senior management roles, working closely with future director John Browne, serving as deputy associate director for defense research and applications.

Much of Pete's efforts at the time centered on the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), or “Star Wars.” He relayed this was a time of heavy engagement in Washington, involving Edward Teller from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) and the then-head of SDI, U.S. Gen. James Abrahamson. He hosted then Rep. Jon Kyl (pictured below) for discussions on these initiatives.

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Lyons, center, with former Rep. Jon Kyl, left, and Paul White, right, from the Laboratory’s Center for National Security Studies.

The final phase of his career at Los Alamos had Pete leading the Industrial Partnership Office, the predecessor to today’s Feynman Center. As the world entered the post-Cold War era, his efforts centered around working with industry to see how technologies could be applied to solve business problems of the time.

Domenici years

Pete had a series of leadership positions at Los Alamos, taking him frequently to Washington to meet with officials at the Departments of Energy and Defense and in congress to help explain the important work at Los Alamos.

At one point, then-Director Siegfried Hecker asked Pete if he would consider an assignment working as the science advisor to New Mexico’s senior senator at the time, Senator Pete Domenici (pictured below). He and Elaine soon sold their Los Alamos home and moved to Washington for a “two-year assignment” that evolved into the next 20 years of Pete’s career in public/government service.

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Lyons, center, with former Senator Pete Domenici.

At the nation's capital

Pete was a bit of an anomaly in Washington — a senior scientist and technical expert in a landscape dominated by young policymakers and someone who continued to believe throughout his career that he should not bend to the politically expedient, but rather simply do and advocate for the right thing as dictated by the science in the hopes that the people and the policy would follow.

As it turned out, his approach was a perfect fit with Senator Domenici and the other staff who he formed many life-long friendships with. Working with Domenici, Pete contributed to many of the senator’s legacy issues — working to halt the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and equally importantly advocating for the development and implementation of nuclear energy solutions in the U.S. and around them world.

Advocating for New Mexicans

During his time with Domenici, and then on the Senate Energy Committee staff, Pete was able to work on many issues critical to the national energy debates, and also issues important to the people of New Mexico. He advocated for establishment of funds to start the LANL Foundation, a non-profit that, among other things, funds college scholarships for students across the counties of Northern New Mexico. Pete served for 16 years as a school board member and president of the Los Alamos Public School Board.

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Lyons, left, chats with President Barack Obama, right, in the White House's Oval Office.

Pete’s time in Washington was marked with one personal tragedy when Elaine, his then-wife of 30 years suddenly passed away of a brain aneurysm.

Questions were raised about whether Pete would remain in Washington, D.C., but he did continue his work and threw himself into the next chapters of his professional life — first serving as a commissioner on the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), and then as the deputy assistant secretary for Nuclear Energy (NE), working for long-time friend, and fellow Los Alamos scientist Pete Miller, making significant and lasting progress in nuclear energy policy.

Following Miller’s retirement, Lyons was then named assistant secretary by President Barack Obama.

Final years

In the final year of his life, Pete continued to receive accolades from professional societies and governments, lauding his years of service.

Dwight D. Eisenhower Medal

One award that was particularly meaningful for him, which he received while in the midst of particularly grueling chemotherapy treatments, was the American Nuclear Society’s Dwight D. Eisenhower Medal “for his influential leadership in nuclear technology policy over five decades and for the vital role he played in the nuclear renaissance of the early 21st century.”

As Pete relayed to his children, one of the highlights of his life was the personal phone call he received from the former president’s granddaughter Susan Eisenhower, notifying him of the award. In his acceptance speech, Pete noted his admiration for President’s Eisenhower’s vision that he set out in his Atoms for Peace speech.

Family legacy

Pete leaves behind a tremendous legacy in the world of energy and national security policy, but among the things he was proudest of was his family. He is survived by his partner Peggy Lyon-Bull, his three sons Daniel (wife Laura Zerbe), David (wife Laura Mullane) and Michael (fiancée Michelle Webster). Pete is also survived by his brother Kenneth Lyons of New Jersey (wife Sharon Lyons), niece Anita Lyons (partner Jim Cagle) of New Jersey, and nephew James Lyons (wife Janet Wu) of California.

Pete was incredibly proud of his grandchildren and their many accomplishments. He would travel frequently half way around the world to attend a soccer game, a ballet recital, or a family reunion with all of the grandkids running around. His grandchildren are Elaina (16) and Kyra (13); Noah (18) and Gwyneth (16); and Chloe (15), Caitlin (13), and Jack (10).

Memorial services

Given COVID restrictions, the family is delaying a memorial service until late summer/early fall 2021. Information will be posted to this site as plans can be made.

In lieu of flowers, the family asks that contributions be made to any of Pete’s favorite charities, including the American Diabetes Association, Public Broadcasting of Colorado, the Denver Rescue Mission, the Nature Conservancy, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the University of Colorado Cancer Center, and the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.