A mindset of safety and success

Iris Molina gives all the credit to her employees

June 4, 2024

Iris Molina

Iris Molina's role as a leader at Los Alamos National Laboratory requires an array of technical skills that are crucial to the Lab's plutonium pit mission; skills she has honed over her long career at the Lab. Her real focus, however, is on her team.

Molina’s team is responsible for three different functional areas in pit production, including welding components, putting those welded parts together and conducting nondestructive testing. The pits are being manufactured at the direction of the federal government, which views modernizing the nation’s nuclear weapons stockpile as critical to national security, especially in the face of modernization efforts by Russia and China.

While Molina oversees those pit production tasks, she wants employees across the Lab to know how exceptional her employees are.

"For me, a lot of my day is not only planning manufacturing strategy, but making sure employees are situated with their work and plan for the day," Molina said. "I also focus on onboarding and hiring, and getting our people what they need to carry out their work safely. These tasks allow me to see up close the accomplishments of our people. I give them all of the credit — they're crushing it."

Confronting challenges

Molina and employees in her group face many challenges, including working in the small rooms and hallways of the Plutonium Facility alongside other programs beyond the pit mission.

"We have limited space in our facility, and the space needs to be shared," Molina said. “The people of the Pit Technologies division are great folks who understand the challenges and work closely with their teammates for facility scheduling and support across projects. Our employees' willingness to pivot and commitment to putting safety first in the facility makes what we do a success."

Employees make pit mission milestones happen

Despite the challenges, Molina’s group and the many other organizations supporting the pit mission expect to achieve a major milestone this year — building the first war-reserve plutonium pit for the W87-1 warhead modification program.

Building that first production unit (FPU) is now possible thanks to the employees who have manufactured many development builds, or test pits, in recent years. Those development pits allowed the division to perfect the pit-making process, paving the way for FPU.

With Molina's leadership over those years, her group's pit assembly activities have played an integral role in reaching pit production milestones. Molina first joined the Lab as a high school intern 23 years ago. In 2004, she went on to support an equipment installation team where she learned about glove box design and project management. Then, in 2010, she was asked to return to work in the Plutonium Facility and in 2022 took on her current role as group leader.

"We've completed a lot of processes and steps to prepare for FPU, and as a result, every year we have increasingly improved pit development builds and the number of development builds per year," Molina said. "In fact, this past year we've blown our goals out of the water. We exceeded our expectations last year."

People come first

Molina said putting workers first is key to reaching the goals of the pit mission.

"We're responsible for many different processes in pit production, and each one takes a lot of hands-on personnel, so our team will keep growing and learning," Molina said.

"I'm always amazed at the tenacity of our group. They've faced challenges that we weren't expecting and some we haven't faced before. We overcame those by holding the mindset that we're going to be successful in this mission. We're now well poised to reach FPU — and it's the people who are going to get us there."