Not your average Zoom meeting

U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm virtually visited Los Alamos to give kudos and encouragement to the Laboratory workforce.

By Whitney Spivey | December 13, 2021

Analysis Granholm Opt
“I’m a political scientist,” Granholm told Los Alamos employees. But after hearing about some of the Lab’s cutting-edge science, technology, and engineering work, she joked, “I’ll just throw that out the window.” Los Alamos National Laboratory

By the time U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm said, “I hope I’m not blasted across a screen at the front of the auditorium,” it was too late—her face was already projected above the stage in the National Security Sciences Building at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

There, 200 vaccinated employees were gathered for a two-hour Zoom meeting. The date was June 14, and the secretary beamed clearly into the auditorium from her Washington, D.C., office. Before she participated in a virtual tour of the Laboratory to learn more about how Los Alamos’ national security mission enables other types of science—including climate studies, cancer research, and space exploration—Granholm addressed Laboratory employees. Here’s what she said. (The following has been edited for length and clarity.)

Science is foundational to America’s success

What a treat to be able to visit you all. I’m excited to learn more about the incredible work that you do, and I want to take this opportunity to share how much I respect and admire and believe in everything that you’re doing at Los Alamos. This complex is where all of DOE’s [the Department of Energy’s] core missions converge—nuclear security, fundamental science, applied science, clean energy innovation, environmental clean up, cyber security, the whole nine yards. You do it all, and it makes the scope and the reach of your work truly something to behold.

You make the plutonium pits that are critical to maintaining a safe and effective nuclear deterrent. You work with another isotope of plutonium that helps power NASA missions to Mars. You spearhead the R&D for all kinds of energy technologies, including the ones that are going to be instrumental in our clean energy future. You’re developing complex modeling that helps us track how diseases move and spread, including COVID-19. And what’s really amazing to me is how all of these efforts really complement and accelerate one another—the supercomputers you use to certify the nuclear stockpile also map climate impacts; the accelerators you use for weapons diagnostics also help to treat cancer.

The bottom line is that no matter what the mission is that you work on, you are what DOE is, what I like to call, “America’s solutions department.” Because with every new technology, every new innovation, every new boundary that you push and you break  through, you’re helping us to build a safer and healthier and more prosperous nation and clearing the way for America to win the 21st century, and that never fails to make me feel more energized and more inspired and more hopeful about the future.

I do not want to get political, but I do know that, in the past few years, some people in our DOE family have felt that maybe their projects have been ignored or slighted or even attacked because of the “war on science.” Some of you may have had studies blocked or delayed or felt the integrity of your work was put into jeopardy. Some of you may have felt pressure not to follow the science. The suspension of diversity, equity, and inclusion training efforts may have made some people feel unwelcomed. Many of you have watched dear colleagues maybe even decide to leave. I don’t know if that’s true at Los Alamos, but I know it’s true at some labs. Whether or not any of this has been your experience, I want you to know that President Biden and I and everyone in our leadership ranks are here to support you and to fight for you every step of the way. We believe that science—and I mean science that reflects the incredible diversity of ideas and viewpoints that this country has to offer—is foundational to the success of America.

“You are...what I like to call, 'America’s solutions department.’ Because with every new technology, every new innovation, every new boundary that you push and you break  through, you’re helping us to build a safer and healthier and more prosperous nation and clearing the way for America to win the 21st century.” —Jennifer Granholm

The national labs are really the crown jewels of this agency, and we have every intention of treating you as the jewels that you are. I hope you’ll be able to see that commitment in the president’s 2022 proposed budget for DOE, which requests a very large increase in funding for our science programs and national labs, as well as our support for nuclear security and environmental cleanup, and I hope you can see it in the American jobs plan that the president is hoping to get through congress. That plan aims to cement our nation’s spot as a global leader in science and innovation. The point is, we are putting a big bet on research and development. We are putting a big bet on the sheer power of American ingenuity, and that means we’re putting a big bet on each and every one of you. We can’t do these things—we can’t tackle the climate crisis, we can’t protect the American people, we can’t compete in the global economy—any other way.

Granholm watched prerecorded videos about the Laboratory’s plutonium, accelerator, and supercomputing facilities and then interacted in real time with employees who work in each of these areas. “Today you’ll learn about a handful of our programs in areas like nuclear nonproliferation, fundamental science, and R&D,” Laboratory Director Thom Mason told her before the first video. “We hope after this virtual tour, you’ll want to come back in person and get a deeper dive into our work.”

Granholm also took questions, including the following, from employees.

Los Alamos is engaged in a wide range of missions. How would you frame the role of our national labs and Los Alamos in particular in today’s world?

I know that when most people think of Los Alamos, they think of the nuclear security mission, but what really amazes me is your leadership in energy, research, and technological innovation. The work that you do on everything from materials and concepts for clean energy to developing safe and sustainable nuclear energy is so  important to this administration’s climate and clean energy goals. As you know, the president has laid out the boldest climate agenda in our nation’s history, which includes the ambitious goals of 50 to 52 percent reductions in our carbon emissions below 2005 levels by the end of this decade, by 2030, 100 percent clean electricity by 2035, and net zero emissions by 2050. Pulling that off is really going to require the power of science and innovation at a scale the world has never seen before. And that’s where Los Alamos and the rest of DOE’s national labs come in. You’re already on a significantly impressive streak—Los Alamos has won 170 R&D 100 awards for the development of exceptional technologies that help us, and that number continues to grow. That is just phenomenal, and it certainly bodes well for our ability to research, develop, and deploy the technologies that we’re going to need to secure that clean energy future. Our energy security and our national security are utterly intertwined. And we’re going to need to maximize the full scope and breadth of the research agendas at all our national labs to advance both.

What can the national labs contribute to further hardening our security posture against sophisticated cyberattacks?

These cyberattacks on our critical infrastructure only continue to get more aggressive and more frequent. We are going to need to use every tool that we have to better predict and mitigate risks and the scientific and technological power of our national labs is going to be absolutely critical in those efforts.

One of the most important tools that our labs are already bringing to bear in our cybersecurity efforts is complex modeling. For example, Los Alamos has been working with other national labs and our Office of Electricity on the North American Energy Resilience Model—an analytic tool to help us to identify major vulnerabilities in our energy infrastructure and invest in effective solutions.

Will you and the Biden administration support continued investments in the pit mission while also investing in cleanup of World War II and Cold War nuclear sites?

The Biden administration continues to support that 80 pits-per-year commitment, and we’re really glad that Los Alamos is leading the way and that you are on track to meet your 30-pit production milestone by 2026. I also want to recognize that Los Alamos is working very closely with DOE and the Savannah River Site to make sure that the two-site strategy for pit production is successful.

We have to address plutonium aging to keep the stockpile safe, secure, and reliable, and at the same time, we’re absolutely committed to making progress in environmental cleanup work. The environmental cleanup work is about more than restoring the land; it’s about keeping promises to our people and lifting this burden from communities that have shouldered the burden of our safety, including tribal nations. It’s about making sure that families can breathe clean air and drink clean water and raise their children in safe homes. We need to build strong relationships with the community. You guys have done that really well with tribes and stakeholders around all of our project sites. Strong outreach leads to safer and faster clean up.

Ultimately, these two missions [pit production and environmental cleanup] are critical to our national and economic security. The goal is to do both with the utmost regard to safety and inclusivity while taking into account the needs of local communities every step of the way.

Nominated by President Joe Biden to lead the Department of Energy (DOE) and confirmed as a member of his cabinet in February 2021, Granholm is the nation’s 16th secretary of energy. Prior to her nomination, Granholm was the first woman elected governor of Michigan, where she served two terms from 2003 to 2011. Granholm, who has a history of pursuing programs that support clean energy, was particularly interested in the ways the Laboratory supports strategic national interests, including climate solutions.