The mission to modernize

Meet some of the women behind the renovation of the Los Alamos Plutonium Facility.

By Alexa Henry | November 28, 2022

Abstracts Women Construction Opt
Forty-three percent of the employees in the Plutonium Infrastructure associate directorate are women. For comparison, 32.5 percent of employees across the entire Laboratory are women. Los Alamos National Laboratory

Before Los Alamos National Laboratory can meet its goal of producing at least 30 plutonium pits (nuclear weapon cores) per year, the Laboratory first needs to complete an ambitious renovation project.

Modernizing the 45-year-old Plutonium Facility (PF-4) falls under the Lab’s Plutonium Infrastructure (PI) associate directorate, which employs more than 130 people—43 percent of them women. These women are among those responsible for decontaminating and decommissioning decades-old equipment, preparing new equipment for installation, upgrading safety systems, and making sure the Laboratory has the personnel in place to complete the work.

“PI has been fortunate to have a significant number of female applicants competing for new and fulfilling roles,” says Robin Simpson, a construction projects strategist who attended the Society of Women Engineers hiring fair twice in 2022 to attract as many qualified female employees into technical roles as possible. “Women offer broad experience and new perspectives within our organization, allowing our construction-centric organization an opportunity to grow in exciting new ways while sending the message that historically male-dominated fields are no longer off limits for qualified female candidates.”

PI’s mission requires execution of complex projects in a fast-paced environment, explains project-program director Carole Engelder, who joined the Laboratory several years ago after 30 years in the renewable energy, petrochemical, and petroleum-refining industries. “Diversity of experience and aptitude fosters better decision making, deeper analysis in problem solving, and higher levels of trust throughout the organization,” she says.

Sarah Quintana joined the Laboratory as an intern in 2008 while pursuing her bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering at the University of New Mexico; she later earned a master’s of engineering management from the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology. Today, she’s a project manager who oversees preparation and testing of new gloveboxes and other equipment required for pit production. “Being a part of PI means I am a part of the massive effort to execute numerous projects from infrastructure support to complex equipment installation efforts,” she says. “I carry the responsibility of ensuring this work is performed successfully.”

Quintana encourages other women interested in joining PI and supporting the pit mission to not be intimidated by any potential challenges. “Pursue the difficult route,” she says. “To this day, I am often the only female at the table; I take pride in working hard and earning my place while supporting the pit mission. I hope to continue setting a good example for all women through my work ethic, professionalism, and overall approach to tackling challenges.”

Construction manager Savannah Romero agrees. “Take the initiative,” she says. “Own your strength—you have an opportunity to make a difference and be a part of something great in service to your country.” ★