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Wallace named new LANL director

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By Tris DeRoma

Los Alamos National Laboratory’s new director Terry Wallace remembers when the front gate came down.

He was a child back then. His father, Terry Wallace, Sr., worked at the lab. He loved the outdoors, played chess in the chess club and basketball at Los Alamos High School. His mother, Jeanette Wallace, was a Republican state representative for Dist. 43 for 22 years. 

Wallce said he really loved Los Alamos, and the unique experiences the town offered him.

“It was the greatest experience possible, but that’s probably because I didn’t know anything else,” he said.

“By the time I left high school, I already had the equivalent of an undergraduate degree in mathematics,” he said.

Wallace was appointed director of LANL and president of Los Alamos National Security, LLC, the company that manages and operates the laboratory for the National Nuclear Security Administration, the lab announced Tuesday. His appointment will officially take effect Jan. 1.

Wallace first worked at LANL while getting his undergraduate degree at New Mexico Tech. He worked in the J-8 section of the laboratory, where they tested and monitored large explosions.

“I got to hone my scientific skills at a time the U.S. was getting ready to make a major change in the way it did its testing. I am probably one of the few people left that got to experience those large explosions,” he said.

He then received his Ph.D. and master’s degree in geophysics from the California Institute of Technology, and taught applied mathematics and geoscience at the University of Arizona. Wallace returned to Los Alamos in 2003, where he began a career at the laboratory.

He is currently the lab’s principal associate director for Global Security (PADGS), and leads laboratory programs with a focus on applying scientific and engineering capabilities to address national and global security threats, in particular, nuclear threats. 

Though much has changed at the laboratory, since his time as an undergrad at J-8, it’s primary mission has not.

“Our top priority is to execute our mission, and that mission is to try and solve the hardest problems that face our nation’s security. They are funded out into the future, and we have to really stay focused on that,” he said. “Though it may sound like a trivial answer, our top priority is delivering for the nation.”

He noted North Korea’s launch of an ICBM missile Tuesday as a prime example of what the lab’s mission is all about.

“Los Alamos has always been the go-to institution of understanding the technical details of other countries nuclear programs or potential programs. We’ve been working with other agencies since the 1990s. We will continue to do that,” Wallace said. “We are not a policy operation, we provide the technical expertise behind that. We will continue to that as long as it’s a threat to our national security.”

Wallace said those that say the lab needs to stop focusing so much on nuclear weapons and international security for a more “scientific” mission really don’t understand what the lab’s mission is.

“We can’t accomplish our mission without absolutes in science and technology,” he said. “There’s no question. Those that say ‘should we refocus LANL’ don’t understand who we are.”

Wallace said the lab’s role is very clear, and that it very much involves science.

“We are a national laboratory. It is our job to do those hard things about securing the nation. We use science to do that. We are a wholly owned enterprise of that mission,” Wallace said. “We don’t get to choose to be,  for example, a science laboratory like a university may be able to choose an area to pursue. We embrace science, because that is how we solve the hard problems in our mission.”

Wallace also said he understands people’s concerns about safety at the lab, and will work to keep Los Alamos County and the people that work at the lab safe.

“There is nothing more important than sending our scientists, engineers and technicians home everyday. It’s extremely important to us,” he said.  “But we should put that in context. We are the largest laboratory in the NNSA complex, we are also the most complicated laboratory in the NNSA complex.”

He also said the lab has been undergoing a safety culture change, and has been for five years. He said they will continue to make this change because it is working, though there have been some learning curves along the way.

“We began to undergo a journey from what we call subject matter expertise, relying on the individual’s knowledge on how to operate that facility four or five years ago to a process-based way to do that, so we can actually track it,” he said. “Part of the reason we’re in the news is that in this process we go from one to the other. It is a self learning exercise, we have to appreciate that we’re going to discover things that we need to do differently. I’m proud of the culture that we have to embrace this. But it is a challenge, and a challenge we cannot fail at.”