Nuclear energy facility expert is here to build

Steady leader leans into safety culture

September 14, 2023

"I'm an explorer and not concerned about new environments, not afraid to leave what I know. I got that from my dad. I adapt fast and am a quick study."

Large construction projects can take decades to build from design to completion. Nuclear energy facility projects take even longer with a slew of extra safety and security steps required, and sometimes they don't ever get built. Martin Owens, senior director of the Project Execution Office, has held "dream jobs" in nuclear energy construction in the past, but he says he left all that to come to the Los Alamos National Laboratory to "actually build something."

Martin is part of the busy team within the Associate Laboratory Directorate for Infrastructure and Capital Projects that is populating the Pajarito Corridor area with 150 projects planned in the next 10 years: new office and lab buildings, weapons facilities, cafeterias, fire stations, warehouses and utilities.

But that's not all. Martin says his entire Labwide portfolio amounts to 600-plus projects totaling more than $1 billion.

Despite the pressure this kind of workload and responsibility exerts on a person, Martin remains good-natured and amiable.

"Working with Martin for the last 18 months, I appreciate that he brings a positive and optimistic outlook in our daily execution of capital projects," says Russ Milam, project management officer for Science & Technology Operations. "His management style is refreshing and rare in the engineering and construction industry."

Mission driven, safety supported

After 30 years in global engineering, procurement and construction of nuclear energy projects, Martin has found a good fit with the current mission demand at Los Alamos.

"I like that my position at the Lab serves a mission that supports the country," Martin says. "Here, you get a budget and it's on us to go deliver the project — the goal is clear. We're not doing development, competing for projects, or starting and stopping. There are challenges, but the mission and work are otherwise clear."

The fundamental ways we do our work at the Lab also resonate with Martin. He keeps a copy of the the Lab’s core safety principles on his office door and another on the wall. While talking, he grabbed a printed one-page sheet with similar principles from his desk. Martin has followed these fundamentals since his first job in nuclear engineering with BWX Technologies (BWXT), where he spent more than 20 years managing development, fabrication and deployment of U.S. naval reactor plants.

“Safety is everyone's responsibility,” “maintain a questioning attitude,” “never compromise quality,” and “challenges are best resolved through communication and teamwork” are the basis for all work Martin does and for those he leads.

"In the high-stress world of project execution, Martin is the calm, steady captain," said Ric Rodarte, project management officer for Sigma Division. "Martin exudes a peaceful energy while he manages a large portfolio of projects and actively pursues innovative solutions. I truly appreciate working under Martin because he has an amazing wealth of knowledge and experience and is supportive of continuous improvement."

From naval submarines to the high desert

With the construction boom at the Lab, Martin has been hiring for a variety of positions. When he asks applicants why they want to work here, he hears the same reason he was interested — building things. 

"I was lucky to get 23 years of actual building on submarines with BWXT, all within the razor wire, top-secret classified stuff," he says. "I thought the commercial nuclear world would be producing more than the Navy, but I found out in 2007 that no one had built a commercial power plant since 1981 or '82. At LANL, we're not building toasters; we're building things that matter: state-of-the-art science facilities — that's satisfying."

At BWXT, one of his projects was a prototype for the Seawolf submarine.

"It's one of the baddest submarines out there," Martin says. "No expense was spared for it to be the fastest, quietest submarine. I had early responsibility to develop and build essentially a modular reactor that goes in a ship."

He also worked on the first Virginia-class submarine (nuclear-powered cruise missile fast-attack submarines in service with the U.S. Navy). Martin served as project director for new nuclear and solar projects with the French AREVA government group and with GE Hitachi on a small modular nuclear reactor program.

During an environmental siting study for commercial nuclear power plants in Saudi Arabia, Martin drew a comparison to the landscape of canyons and cliffs he's come to love in Los Alamos.

"While looking for sites and doing environmental assessments, we were at these little farms getting samples of camel's milk and dates — it was wild," he says. "I had all these Saudis on my team, and I was flying by the seat of my pants. There's no instruction manual for that kind of work. The interesting thing was coming out here and realizing the terrain looked a lot like New Mexico."

Raised for adventure

Martin was born in England, and he emigrated to the U.S. at age 8. This unique childhood set him up to be the people person he is today.

"I'm an explorer and not concerned about new environments, not afraid to leave what I know. I got that from my dad," Martin says of his Harvard and MIT biochemistry professor father. "I adapt fast and am a quick study."

One more reason he jumped at the job opportunity in Los Alamos: his love for the mountains and outdoors. "I thought it was cool to come out West where the land opens up and you can see the horizon."

He grew up playing soccer and still runs recreationally. He is a cross-country and downhill skier, but his primary sport is bicycling.

Martin has raced on road, mountain and cyclocross bikes, and has competed in triathlons and duathlons. "I was pretty serious about cycling. I tried to qualify in the duathlon for my age group at the World Athletic Championship, and I was close."

But his greatest love is mountain biking where he can "get away from it all, hardly see anyone else, and it's just you against the terrain — there's something really nice about that."

Martin expressed a desire for more oxygen and fewer rocks when riding in Los Alamos and noted respect for the cliff trails. "There's no warning signs or ropes! Nobody's telling you the rules, so you have to use your best judgement."

He says he appreciates the mix of cultures in New Mexico and is fascinated with the geology of the local Valles Caldera.

Martin stands beside the pulse generator at the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory, where a new copper-wound steel rotor will be installed later this year.

Team builder with a bent for cultural understanding

Martin has worked on developing trust with subcontractors and awarding multiple contracts to create a critical mass of work to create sustainable employment here.

The Project Execution Office also aligned capital projects with facility operations to create a shared fate.

"We have synergy, and the same teams are working together consistently now. That's certainly been successful," he says.

Martin, who joined the Lab in 2021, still splits his time between his home in North Carolina and Los Alamos. A photo of Gracie, his English cream golden retriever, is tacked to his office bulletin board. He visits his wife and four kids regularly between work demands.

"Martin has brought a significantly different method of running this department," says Rusty Ervin, manager at the Project Executions Office. "He's worked extensively to understand the Northern New Mexico culture as well as the detailed backgrounds of each one of his staff members, project managers and all their many personnel interfaces. He truly is a people person that believes in the development of working relationships to make the department successful."