On October 9, 2018, Charles Verdon was sworn in as the deputy administrator for Defense Programs at the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA). In this role—and during the six months he served as acting NNSA administrator in 2021—he directed the nation’s Stockpile Stewardship Program, which uses cutting-edge science and technology to maintain the safety, security, and reliability of America’s nuclear weapons stockpile without nuclear testing.
Verdon, who holds a PhD in nuclear engineering, was a member of the senior leadership team at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory before joining NNSA. “I continued to learn a lot after I left Livermore to take the Defense Programs position, and my admiration for the nuclear weapons complex just continues to grow,” he says. “It has been my honor to serve.”
After working across two presidential administrations, Verdon stepped down in April. Before saying goodbye, he sat down for a brief conversation with NSS.
How does NNSA attract and retain top scientists and engineers to work at the national laboratories?
Because of the world’s geopolitical environment, national security is of growing importance right now. NNSA is sending a strong message, especially to people fresh out of school, that national security is something the country values. We’re coming up with all sorts of initiatives to attract people, and our hiring has been pretty successful. We’re also doing a good job of knowledge transfer—we’re delivering the mission with a relatively new workforce.
Retention is an emerging issue that we’re still trying to wrap our heads around. The nuclear weapons complex has traditionally had a history of very high retention—people believed in the mission and they stayed for decades because the work is exciting. But now, because of COVID-19, we’re certainly seeing a change. For example, highly classified work might require a person to come in to work five days a week, but now that person might rather come in only three days a week. How do you accommodate that and still do the mission? I don’t think we have the answer yet, although certainly NNSA is working on it.
How do the national laboratories—specifically Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore—best work together in support of the stockpile stewardship mission?
Managed competition has always existed between Livermore and Los Alamos. Prior to the Stockpile Stewardship Program, this competition benefited the country because it brought forward the best warheads to answer the needs of the DOD (Department of Defense). Then, with the cessation of underground nuclear explosive testing and the advent of the stewardship program, because the science of weapons performance is not completely understood, having competition between the two labs is even more important.
Los Alamos, being J. Robert Oppenheimer’s lab, and Livermore, being Edward Teller’s lab, approach the same problem very differently. If they come up with the same answer, we have improved confidence. If they come up with differences, we’d better listen.
As the deputy administrator for Defense Programs, what is your relationship with Los Alamos?
I’ve always had great admiration and respect for the abilities of Los Alamos. I’ve tried to make sure that Los Alamos retains a balance of activities while also focusing on producing 30 plutonium pits per year by 2026. Pit production is a new and different challenge; Los Alamos has the scientific and technical wherewithal to do it, now it has to learn the operational wherewithal. It’s been a long time since the nuclear enterprise has done sustained pit production, so relearning how to do it, especially with COVID-19, is quite a challenge. I think everyone is working hard to achieve it. Everyone believes in the mission. What more could you ask for?
How should Los Alamos strike a balance between research institution and production facility?
I think by making sure and all the scientific work continues to move forward and is not lost in the noise of pit production. For example, the W93 warhead program could have not gone to Los Alamos, but that would have been, in my mind, the wrong decision. Los Alamos is doing a good job balancing its priorities, although there’s no question that pit production will continue to take a lot of the oxygen out of the room for a significant period.
What are some challenges faced by Defense Programs these past three and a half years?
The biggest has been making sure we understood what was required to support the nation’s nuclear deterrent. We transparently identified all those issues and made sure that we came up with a prioritized way of addressing them. And then we were as transparent as possible with our DOD partners and our colleagues on Capitol Hill so that they understood what it takes to meet DOD’s current and future requirements. It’s a big effort that was both challenging and rewarding.
So many important activities are in progress; that’s why I was asked, and agreed, to stay on through the administration change. Being able to continue that momentum and ensure a smooth transition between one administration and the next was important. I’ve been transparent about what we’ve done and what still needs to be done, but of course it is up to the NNSA administrator and new head of Defense Programs how they want to continue, change, or finish it.
I’ve rarely had the joy of actually seeing projects that I helped launched get completed. So, I’ve taken the approach that I just have to be pleased with the fact that we identified important things to be accomplished and the timeline they should be accomplished on. And then, after getting support from DOD, from the Hill, from the administration, we got to work with our M&O [management and operating] partners—including Los Alamos and other national labs, plants, and sites. So that’s kind of the victory I have to take— knowing that maybe I’ll get to see projects completed, but it will be from a rocking chair on the porch. ★