Senior management changes are underway at Los Alamos National Laboratory.
Dr. Thomas Mason, a physicist with a long tenure overseeing Department of Energy nuclear facilities, will become the lab’s new director on Nov. 1. Mason spent a decade overseeing Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee before leaving in 2017 to become the senior vice president for Global Laboratory Operations at Battelle Memorial Institute.
His appointment is among five senior management announcements made Monday, the first shake-ups as the laboratory transitions toward new leadership. However, questions remain about the future management and tax structure of the lab.
Last month, Triad National Security LLC, a consortium led of Battelle Memorial Institute, the University of California System and the Texas A&M University System, was awarded a multibillion-dollar annual contract by the National Nuclear Security Administration to oversee the lab and replace its current contractor, Los Alamos National Security, LLC, or LANS.
“It is a tremendous honor to be selected as director-designate of one of the world’s leading scientific institutions, which is working at the forefront of science to solve complex nuclear security and energy challenges,” Mason, 53, said in Battelle news release. “I look forward to working closely with NNSA, the current management team, laboratory staff and community members to carry out a seamless transition that advances the laboratory’s long legacy of scientific excellence in service to the nation.”
Mason’s 10-year leadership tenure at Oak Ridge, which is run by Battelle and the University of Tennessee, was largely applauded by Tennessee’s congressional delegation and his peers upon his departure in 2017. A former physicist from New York, Samuel Aronson, told Science magazine that Mason has a “very deep and immediate grasp of how the labs operate.”
During the last few years of Mason’s leadership at Oak Ridge, the lab saw several worker health and safety violations, including seven workers who inhaled highly enriched uranium and an incident in which a worker narrowly avoided being crushed by an 800-pound glovebox — a confined container used to manipulate nuclear material through attached gloves.
Just months after his departure in 2017, Oak Ridge announced it would reduce staff by 350 positions, 100 of which were ultimately achieved through layoffs.
Originally from Halifax, Nova Scotia, Mason majored in physics at Dalhousie University. He earned his doctorate in condensed matter sciences in 1990 from McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario.
Mason also worked as the associate lab director for the Department of Energy’s Spallation Neutron Source and for the Neutron Sciences Directorate at Oak Ridge. Before joining Oak Ridge in the late 1990s, he was a faculty member in the physics department at the University of Toronto.
Battelle declined to make Mason available for an interview Monday but said he will begin working with current lab director Terry Wallace as part of the four-month transition. In a fact sheet, Triad wrote it is still reviewing future management structure, staffing and the question of whether the new limited liability company will be required to pay New Mexico gross receipts taxes.
The lab, as a for-profit contractor, paid just under $82 million in gross receipts taxes in 2016.
But Triad said its tax obligations are still unclear and, “there are several parties reviewing the issue and we will provide an update as soon as possible.”
Los Alamos National Security was effectively ousted by the NNSA after a series of costly accident and worker safety violations. The agency called for a fundamental “culture change” at Los Alamos when the contract was put out for bid last year. The University of California, which has operated the lab since 1943, will retain a central role in the new leadership of the laboratory as will several members of the Triad leadership teams, who also are longtime lab employees.
Other key appointees include:
• Dr. Robert Webster, a 29-year veteran of the the weapons program at Los Alamos, was named deputy director of weapons. He will continue to oversee the lab’s plutonium science division, where he has held key leadership roles since 2012. The division has been plagued by serious problems, including a more than yearlong pause in plutonium production following a near-fatal accident.
• Dr. John Sarrao, the deputy director of science, technology and engineering. He was appointed as principal associate director of the division earlier this year and has held senior leadership positions at Los Alamos for years.
• Frances Chadwick, who has worked at Los Alamos since 1996, will serve as staff director.
Incoming director Mason and Dr. Kelly Beierschmitt, deputy director of operations, are the only new hires announced so far who will come from other labs. Beierschmitt will join the laboratory from Idaho National Laboratory and has also worked at Oak Ridge.