The nuclear security enterprise—the complex of laboratory, production, and testing facilities overseen by the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA)—exists to ensure that America’s nuclear deterrent is safe, secure, and effective. The enterprise is also responsible for enhancing nuclear nonproliferation (tracking peaceful nuclear activity and countering the spread of nuclear weapons materials and technologies) and for designing nuclear reactors for U.S. Navy submarines and surface ships.
“In the world we live in, it is critical to have a deep understanding of this mission in order to contribute to national decision-making in real time,” says Jill Hruby, an engineer and former director of Sandia National Laboratories, who has been NNSA administrator since July 2021.
Hruby says her technical background has proved useful in leading NNSA. “Managing a large enterprise takes problem-solving skills learned at every level of engineering and every level of management,” she says. “It is very useful to know how the enterprise works from multiple perspectives.”
Hruby recently took time out of her busy schedule for a brief conversation with National Security Science.
What is the role of collaboration within the nuclear enterprise?
The nuclear enterprise is built as an interdependent system, even with some aspects of competition. We cannot successfully accomplish any of our missions at one site. The key is for everyone to do what they are the very best at and then work with others in their institutions and across the enterprise to deliver the best solutions. Personally, I find collaboration energizing and interesting. By working with others, much more can be accomplished.
What have been NNSA’s greatest achievements under your leadership?
My main intent has been refocusing the NNSA enterprise on maximizing efficiency and effectiveness and reminding everyone that our work gets done in a distributed enterprise. The NNSA reorganization and the Enhancing Mission Delivery Initiative have been two large parts of this. Also, the pay packages for our M&O [management and operating] partners and the increase in benefit flexibilities have been aligned with this intent. In mission space, my focus has been on our work in Ukraine, our advancement of weapon and production modernization, and our continued efforts in nonproliferation while paying attention to emerging threats.
What have been NNSA’s greatest challenges under your leadership?
Changing the culture of the enterprise to be more responsive and to take measured risk. The world we live in today is not one where we can move slowly if we are going to help.
What is the role of supercomputing in the future of the enterprise?
Supercomputing is at the heart of science-based stockpile stewardship and increasingly at the center of many of our other missions. But the modeling we do on supercomputers needs to be well-grounded by experimental work. Increasingly, we will need to have supercomputers that incorporate more artificial intelligence and neuromorphic computing. The NNSA enterprise must help advance supercomputing and its components. This is an area where working with industry early is also helpful. Supercomputing is going to be both a national security and economic competitiveness topic for years to come.
How do you prioritize and complete infrastructure projects to support the stockpile of the future while also recruiting and retaining a workforce dedicated to successfully executing the work we are doing today?
We have to simultaneously do our mission work and build new infrastructure, and we are. Every site I visit has many demolition and rebuilding projects underway—it’s really impressive how much is going on. Like other things, we are learning as we go on infrastructure projects. Our biggest challenge is getting our capabilities in time to contribute to ongoing efforts. I think we need to cultivate a construction workforce separate from our lab, plant, and site workforce.
Describe the significance of the plutonium pit mission. Why is this such an important part of deterrence?
It’s simple. We can’t have nuclear weapons without the ability to make plutonium pits. We now know that we can’t reuse pits forever, and even if we don’t know every last detail, we know we need to reestablish our ability to produce pits. I’m glad Los Alamos and Savannah River are making good progress on this capability. It’s really hard.
Please describe the significance of subcritical experiments in stockpile stewardship.
Subcritical experiments at scale with real materials have been lacking, and our efforts today are aimed at filling this gap. The Enhanced Capability for Subcritical Experiments is sustaining and advancing capabilities at the Nevada National Security Site (NNSS) more than anything we’ve done since the cessation of nuclear explosive testing. The Scorpius accelerator and its associated capabilities are key to taking stockpile stewardship to the next level.
What is your vision for the future of the nuclear enterprise?
I have a vision of a more flexible, resilient enterprise where we can make adjustments as needed in response to changing global conditions. I want to create an enterprise that is energized and a rewarding place to work. It should be innovative and collaborative and focused on getting things done. And our science should be the envy of the world. ★