Enterprise experience

    Meet 11 current and former Los Alamos employees who spent portions of their careers at different sites across the nuclear security enterprise.

    By Ian Laird | April 28, 2023

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    Although the labs, plants, and sites of the nuclear security enterprise have individual strengths and missions, they work together and collaborate on a common mission: maintaining a safe, secure, and effective nuclear deterrent.

    Many people across the enterprise spend their careers at a single location, but many people also move among the labs, plants, and sites. Here, 11 Los Alamos employees who’ve worked at other locations across the enterprise share how those experiences inform their current work.

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    John Benner

    Associate Laboratory Director, Weapons Production
    Formerly at Nevada National Security Site, National Nuclear Security Administration

    John Benner was 24 years into his career at Los Alamos when he decided it was time for a new experience. In 2017, he began working as the vice president and chief operating officer for the management and operating contractor of the Nevada National Security Site. There, Benner was responsible for operational and technical integration of all experimental operations. “Being familiar with a site from the outside is different than running it,” Benner says. “I found dimensions and complexity that I didn’t know existed.”

    In 2019, Benner took a one-year assignment as a senior technical advisor to the deputy administrator for Defense Programs at the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA). This role helped him better understand the breadth of Los Alamos’ work. “If you have an opportunity to go on assignment in Washington, D.C., I recommend you take it to help you get a better perspective and understanding of the Lab and its mission,” Benner says. “You begin to realize what a powerful integrating force Los Alamos is across the enterprise.”

    Today, Benner is back at Los Alamos, where he leads the Weapons Production associate directorate and has regular interaction with the plants and sites that support the Lab’s mission to produce plutonium pits (nuclear weapon cores) and other weapons parts. ★

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    Howard Bender III

    Research and development manager, Integrated Weapons Experiments
    Formerly at Sandia National Laboratories, Nevada National Security Site, National Nuclear Security Administration

    In 2000, Howard Bender III began working at Sandia National Laboratories, where he participated in a cooperative research and development agreement for semiconductor manufacturing. Two years later, he took a job with Los Alamos National Laboratory that was based at the Nevada National Security Site (then called the Nevada Test Site). There, he helped support the development of the second axis of the Dual-Axis Radiographic Hydrodynamic Test (DARHT) facility. Located at Los Alamos, DARHT produces radiographs of materials that implode at speeds greater than 10,000 miles an hour. These radiographs help scientists ensure that weapons in the nuclear stockpile are safe and effective. “I was not that familiar with DARHT initially, but it seemed exciting and like a new frontier for my career,” Bender says.

    Bender has been in his current role since 2021 and appreciates the perspective his varied career has afforded him. “All the places I’ve worked are all unique entities with specific purposes, skilled people, and the infrastructure to do their jobs,” he says. “I highly recommend anyone with the interest and ability to take some career detours and move around the enterprise to gain experience and perspective.” ★

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    Tom Bratvold

    Senior director, Los Alamos Plutonium Pit Production Project Office
    Formerly at Hanford Site

    Tom Bratvold was looking for a way to close out his career after 30 years at the Hanford Site in southeast Washington state. The site is known for producing plutonium during the Manhattan Project and for decades after, but its reactors were shut down by 1987. Since that time, Hanford’s mission has been to clean up the site.

    “There wasn’t really anything left for me to do there that I hadn’t done,” Bratvold says of his work at Hanford. So, he took a job at Los Alamos to help with the Lab’s effort to produce plutonium pits. “My children were all grown and the opportunity to be a part of this mission was an incredible motivator,” Bratvold says. “Being a part of returning pit production to the nation seemed like a fitting last chapter in a long career.”

    In this role, Bratvold has put his “priceless experience” to use in support of national security, and he is particularly appreciative of how integrated the NNSA labs, plants, and sites are in undertaking the pit mission. ★

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    Mark Davis

    Chief operations officer, Weapons Production
    Formerly at Savannah River Site, U.S. Navy

    “Passion, effort, and an attachment to the mission are really big when you’re on a submarine,” says U.S. Navy Captain (retired) Mark Davis. “And so, as I was coming out of the Navy, I was concerned about finding that same passion—but I have.”

    In 2017, Davis became the senior vice president of NNSA Operations and Programs at the Savannah River Site, where he was responsible for tritium operations and nuclear nonproliferation programs. Through his work, Davis was able to find that sense of mission that drove him during his time in the military.

    While working at Savannah River, Davis became familiar with NNSA’s pit production mission, which is supported by both Savannah River and Los Alamos. When a position to support this mission opened at Los Alamos, Davis jumped at the opportunity. Upon arrival in 2022, Davis recognized that many of the challenges Los Alamos faces are similar to those he saw at Savannah River and in the Navy. “The people are different, but the challenges are pretty much the same,” Davis says. “How do we attract and retain the right people?” Giving mission-driven people reasons to stay and to continue putting passion and energy into their work is vital to the success of the enterprise, he says. ★

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    David Dooley

    Senior director, Defense Programs Office
    Formerly at Hanford Site, Savannah River Site

    A nuclear engineer and material scientist by training, David Dooley worked at Los Alamos National Laboratory for 10 years before embarking on other opportunities, including a senior management position at Savannah River. “At Savannah River, I had the chance to apply the technical and business lessons I learned from Los Alamos and Hanford,” Dooley says. “Finding practical applications of business systems and processes helped us get work done.”

    In 2018, Dooley landed back at Los Alamos, where he leads the Defense Programs Office, which is part of the Lab’s Weapons Production associate directorate. As a leader, he works to remove obstacles that prevent employees from having positive experiences on the job. “I want to enable our workforce to work effectively and safely,” Dooley says. “There is so much talent across all the nation’s facilities, and the entire nuclear enterprise can benefit greatly from that talent—I really want that to be honored in our day-to-day work.” ★

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    David Feather

    Senior director, Product Agency Transformation Office
    Formerly at National Nuclear Security Administration, Rocky Flats Plant, Sandia National Laboratories, Savannah River Site, Department of Energy headquarters, Kansas City National Security Campus, Nevada National Security Site

    David Feather, an electrical engineer, began working at the Department of Energy's Office of Defense Programs in 1992 and shortly thereafter took assignments at the Rocky Flats Plant, Sandia National Laboratories, and the Savannah River Site. In 2002, Feather moved to the Kansas City National Security Campus, and from 2017 to 2020, he worked at the Nevada National Security Site.

    By the time Feather ended up at Los Alamos in 2022, he had a pretty clear picture of how the labs, plants, and sites of the nuclear security enterprise work together. He also understood the importance of collaboration across the enterprise. “When I worked at [NNSA] headquarters, I always had the ability to see the overhead view,” Feather says. “That experience allowed me to appreciate and respect the environment I work in, but I can also implement different perspectives.”

    Today, Feather is helping the Lab’s Weapons Production associate directorate transition from being a historically research-focused organization to an organization that produces plutonium pits, detonators, and other weapons components. “To do that, we’ll work to identify and prioritize system improvements to enable sustainable and resilient performance,” he says. “Through empowering people, we’ll institutionalize discipline into our processes. Both are essential as we scale to meet the rising demand and to practice the top-tier production excellence to which we aspire.” ★

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    Charles McMillan

    Director emeritus
    Formerly at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

    After earning a doctorate in physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Charles McMillan began working at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. During his 23 years there, McMillan worked his way from experimentalist to division leader. In 2006, when his mentor and friend Michael Anastasio became lab director at Los Alamos, McMillan followed him to New Mexico. Within five years, Anastasio retired, and McMillan became the next director of Los Alamos.

    In this role, McMillan says it was tempting to bring elements of Livermore’s culture into Los Alamos, but ultimately, he decided against it to preserve the perspectives of the two labs. McMillan likens the difference to getting a second opinion from a doctor. “They’re not the same opinion twice. They bring different technical traditions to the table,” McMillan says. “You don’t always get the same answer. When I moved from one lab to another, I felt that was very important to preserve for the nation.”

    Despite the differences, the now retired McMillan has found recent efforts at collaboration between the Los Alamos and Livermore, such as sharing experimental facilities and datasets, to be encouraging. ★

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    Thomas Mueller

    Program manager, Intelligence and Systems Analysis
    Formerly at Kansas City National Security Campus, Sandia National Laboratories, Department of Energy

    After graduate school at the University of Missouri, Thomas Mueller moved to Kansas City and began working as an engineer at the Kansas City National Security Campus (then the Kansas City Plant). During his 11 years there, he had two detail assignments: a one-year stint at Sandia National Laboratories and two years at the Department of Energy’s Office of Intelligence and Counterintelligence.

    In 2014, Mueller moved to Los Alamos, where he started working as an intelligence analyst. His time at Kansas City proved useful to the new job. “I learned a lot while I was at Kansas City through formal and informal training opportunities,” Mueller says. “I learned how to be an engineer, how to manage projects and programs, and how to communicate with colleagues and partners.” And, his time at Sandia and DOE helped him understand that “each site has its own well-established culture and its own definition of success. Those cultures and those definitions drive how each organization looks at a problem. To partner well with each of those sites requires understanding and respecting those cultures and those definitions.” ★

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    Jeffrey Paisner

    Project-program director, Weapons
    Formerly at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

    At one point during his 29 years at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Jeffrey Paisner worked on an isotope separation program. Los Alamos had its own version of the program, and in the early 1980s, the government decided only one would be funded. “It was a peer competition to the death,” Paisner remembers. “And I consider myself the terminator of the Los Alamos program; it was my assessment of the program’s performance that killed it.”

    Despite occasionally ruffling feathers at Los Alamos, Paisner says he’s always valued the relationship between the two weapons laboratories. “There’s tension,” he says, “but there’s a richness in that.”

    In fact, over the years, Paisner worked closely with colleagues at Los Alamos and was recruited to work at the Laboratory in 2003. Among Paisner’s initial responsibilities was leading teams that successfully executed hydrodynamic experiments. “I have a knack for assembling multidisciplinary teams of talented people,” Paisner says. “If you grow up in New York—like I did—and you don’t choose your own team and advocate for them, you don’t survive.”

    Until 2018, Paisner worked on many Los Alamos–designed subcritical experiments, including the Gemini series, for which he and his team earned the 2013 Secretary of Energy Achievement Award. Today, as a project-program director in the office of the Lab’s deputy director for Weapons, Paisner continues to apply his 49 years of experience at the weapons laboratories to pressing national security challenges. ★

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    Darrell Schmidt

    Tri-lab project office manager, Weapons Systems: Production Liaison 
    Formerly at Pantex Plant

    Darrell Schmidt began working at Pantex in 1982 and spent part of his seven years there working on the W56, W70, and B53 weapons systems as the lead process engineer. In this role, he worked with Los Alamos, Livermore, and Sandia national laboratories and was in charge of developing the assembly and disassembly processes for the weapons systems. Over time, Schmidt became interested in weapons design.

    In 1989, he took an “exciting and satisfying” position at Los Alamos and was involved in the assembly and fielding of five underground nuclear tests at the Nevada Test Site and various nonnuclear tests at Los Alamos.

    Having worked on both ends of the production process, Schmidt says design and manufacturing should be a two-way street. “The more open the communication between sites and the customer, the better the outcome,” he explains. “We should remember, design influences manufacturing and manufacturing influences design.” In that regard, Schmidt believes there is progress to be made. Across the enterprise, he believes a focus on administrative details has hindered the cooperative efforts of product realization teams. Still, Schmidt sees the strengths in the enterprise. “I have found that each site truly wants to do the right thing and build the best product possible,” he says. ★

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    Tri Tran

    Director, Stockpile and Enterprise Analytics Office
    Formerly at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, National Nuclear Security Administration

    Tri Tran likens the rapport between Los Alamos and Livermore to a fraternal relationship where the similarities are more prominent than the differences. “Los Alamos and Livermore have been managed [at least partially] by the University of California since the beginning,” Tran explains. “So, the processes, the people, the way we do things, and the roles and responsibilities are pretty comparable.”

    Tran worked at Livermore for 23 years, including a three-year assignment at NNSA in Washington, D.C. That experience allowed him to work closely with people from Los Alamos, and eventually he took a job at the New Mexico laboratory. Tran says the most difficult part of the move wasn’t work related at all. “It was the weather, just mostly weather.”

    Today, Tran works in the Stockpile and Enterprise Analytics Office, which requires him to consider dependencies and impacts of program decisions within Los Alamos and across the enterprise. “Having been at another site and headquarters where there were different priorities,” he says, “I’m always thinking about who else is being affected: the programs, the people, and the bigger picture.” ★