Serving the nation while protecting the environment

Sarah Gould strives to reduce nuclear waste before it's generated

February 12, 2024

Sarah received her bachelor's degree from the University of Arkansas, where she met a group of Marshall Islands descendants who proved a catalyst for joining the Lab's workforce to proactively manage past and present environmental impacts. Here, she is pictured near Lake Fayetteville, Arkansas.

When Sarah Gould first met some descendants from the Marshall Islands, where the United States conducted nuclear tests in the mid-1900s, she was propelled by their advice to get involved with challenging environmental issues.

It was 2018, and Sarah was in a college class on sustainability at the University of Arkansas, where she was earning a bachelor's degree in biological engineering. Several members of the largest Marshallese community in the continental U.S., living just outside Sarah's college town of Fayetteville, Arkansas, spoke to students about their families' pasts, as well as opportunities for creating a better future.

Sarah learned that nearly 300 residents of Enewetak Atoll and Bikini Atoll — two ring-shaped coral islands in the Central Pacific — were relocated while the U.S. performed nuclear tests there from 1946 to 1958. Some were unable to return due to contamination.

"The group was encouraging us to pursue careers in sustainability and consider the aftermath of waste," Sarah says. Now, climate change is presenting additional challenges in the region. 

Today, the Los Alamos National Laboratory relies solely on physics and computer simulations to assess the reliability of nuclear warheads — a policy known as stockpile stewardship. Above-ground nuclear testing ceased in 1963, creating a partial ban on such activities. There have been no underground tests since 1992, when President George H.W. Bush mandated a testing moratorium. Yet radioactive waste from nuclear weapons research, production and maintenance remains a challenge.

Los Alamos National Laboratory wasn't a place Sarah had given much thought until she met the Marshall Islands descendants. Once she learned about the Lab's work solving national security challenges — which intrigued the engineering side of her brain — she perused potential career opportunities on the Lab's website. Her path became clear when she saw a position that would allow her to do just what the guest speakers in her class advised: proactively manage past and present environmental impacts to create a healthy and sustainable future.

Sarah received her bachelor's degree from the University of Arkansas, where she met a group of Marshall Islands descendants who proved a catalyst for joining the Lab's workforce to proactively manage past and present environmental impacts. Here, she is pictured near Lake Fayetteville, Arkansas.

Reducing radioactive waste

After finishing college, Sarah applied for and got a job in the Lab's Pollution Prevention program, which works primarily on source reduction, or eliminating waste before it's created. Sarah's been with the program since 2019 — first as a post-bachelor's student and now as an environmental professional.

Sarah is also part of the Lab's Waste Optimization Working Group, which includes members of the Nuclear Process Infrastructure team that manages and oversees shipments of the Lab's transuranic (TRU) radioactive waste to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, New Mexico. It's there where defense-generated radiological waste is safely and permanently stored 2,150 feet underground in an ancient salt bed.

The group is in its nascent stages, exploring how it can minimize TRU waste generated by the Lab. It aims to use waste reduction as a means of saving money and space while reducing risks to the environment, workers and surrounding community.

Sarah also led the team that spearheaded last year's Patricia E. Gallagher Environmental Awards, which honor Lab employees who show a professional commitment to environmental stewardship. Sarah helped identify several projects that contributed to waste reduction and pollution prevention, including one that focused on legacy beryllium disposal and recycling, and another that created a proof of concept for using a natural bacteria, rather than nitric acid, as a means for leaching copper, a hazardous waste that requires a rigorous disposal pathway at a licensed facility.

Sarah frames a house during her volunteer work with Habitat for Humanity in Santa Fe.

"Excellence and commitment come to mind immediately when thinking about Sarah," said Sarah's team leader in Environmental Stewardship, Kassidy Boorman. "Other qualities that come to mind are execution and leadership. These skills are all demonstrated by Sarah diving headfirst into tackling LANL's complex and difficult problems in such a way that's unexpected in someone of her career level. She's truly extraordinary."

Protecting the Lab from climate change hazards

Recently, Sarah was at the helm of the Lab's Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment and Resilience Plan, or VARP. The VARP stems from President Joe Biden's 2021 executive order on tackling the climate crisis, followed by a DOE plan that outlines priority actions for all DOE sites.

At Los Alamos, the Pollution Prevention Program stepped up to lead the charge and, thanks to an institution-wide collaboration, created a plan for protecting the Lab's critical assets from climate change.

Lab Director Thom Mason notified Sarah last year in August of a 2022 Large Team Distinguished Performance Award for her team's efforts. Their "outstanding contributions and powerful collaborations are an example of what makes Los Alamos National Laboratory great and allows us to tackle the country's most challenging issues," Mason said.

In the initial stages of the VARP, Sarah worked with experts in Earth and Environmental Sciences to gather data on how certain weather events on the Pajarito Plateau will intensify this century. Think warmer temperatures, prolonged drought, higher winds, wildfire and flooding followed by erosion. Then she worked with Infrastructure Planning and the Projects Program Office to identify the Lab's most critical assets. Using a risk assessment tool, Sarah's team calculated the extent to which such assets are vulnerable to projected weather hazards. The result was a compilation of their findings in the official VARP document.

This chart shows average daily minimum temperatures for Los Alamos County, both historical and predicted by NOAA Climate Explorer, through 2100. Daily minimums are projected to increase an average of 11.5°F under a high-emissions scenario and 6.5°F under an intermediate-emissions scenario.

Sarah and the Lab have a plan for that

Subject matter experts privy to the Lab's critical assets then helped Sarah and team consider several resilience solutions to the hazards they identified — such as the projected jump by the end of the century, under a higher emissions scenario, in the number of days per year that Los Alamos County exceeds 90 degrees Fahrenheit, which they estimated will go from about five to 75 days.

All resilience solutions were then rated according to feasibility, effectiveness and other factors. Possible solutions include alternative sources of energy, shade structures on buildings, increased green infrastructure in stormwater features, additional wildfire mitigation, invasive plant species management and robust employee awareness of climate change impacts.

The solutions, if sufficiently funded, would help prevent damage to infrastructure, disruptions to the supply chain and negative impacts on the health, safety and productivity of outdoor workers — among other things.

"People are seeing and experiencing the direct impacts of climate change now," Sarah says. "And for my generation, it's especially relevant because it's not just our kids' future; it's our future. We can't go back in time and change the damage that's been done, but we can try to prepare ourselves better for what's to come."

Climate change in Sarah's home state of Arkansas has brought more rain in heavy downpours. Meanwhile, New Mexico is getting hotter and drier.

Next steps with the VARP

DOE's Sustainability Performance Office has directed the Lab to repeat the VARP process in 2026, and every four years after that, to update its list of critical assets, associated vulnerabilities and proposed resilience solutions.

"The idea is that the vulnerability and risk will decrease because we'll have implemented some of the resilience projects and have greater adaptive capacity," Sarah says. "We have a lot of inventive ideas to build resilience."

"As an early-career professional and a female, it was important to me that I got to take on something big and scary and do a really good job with it. And I like doing things where you can see the change that's happened. I like problems I can help fix," Sarah says. "I am beyond proud of the work performed by the team, the resulting deliverable, and the response from the DOE Sustainability Performance Office, Lab leadership and my colleagues."