LANL chief McMillan hit the ground running

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Lab: New director faced a variety of challenges

By John Severance

Los Alamos lab director Charles McMillan had been on the job for about a month when June 26 rolled around.

He had just taken over for Mike Anastasio, who retired.

McMillan will never forget where he was on June 26 when the Las Conchas Fire started. He will never forget because it also was his anniversary.

“I remember exactly what I was doing; June 26th is also our wedding anniversary,” McMillan said this week. “I was rehearsing the Telemann f minor sonata for recorder at my house with Rokkopelli, the baroque chamber music group I perform with, and looking forward to celebrating with Janet.

“I got a phone call from Kevin Smith (manager of the Los Alamos Site Office). He asked me, “Have you looked outside recently?” So I stepped out onto the deck and saw the plume. I knew immediately it was going to be a very long week.”

It was a very long week for a lot of people around the county and at LANL.

McMillan found himself front and center in front of the national and local media at Ashley Pond daily during that week.

“It was just something that needed to be done,” McMillan said. “The response to the fire was a lesson in cooperation and collaboration with Los Alamos County, the NNSA Los Alamos Site Office, the emergency responders, and the lab’s Emergency Response Organization. Our neighbors needed to see us and hear from the team first-hand.  But I believe I’ve met my quota for news conferences for a while.”

Through the work of the various fire crews, the blaze stayed away from the lab and the town site.

But the fire did a lot of damage especially to the north, west and south of the area.

McMillan was well aware the lab had to help those who were affected.

“LANL and members of the LANL Major Subcontractor Consortium provided significant technical assistance to Santa Clara Pueblo to help mitigate the impacts to their tribal lands,” McMillan said. “Our employees helped fill sandbags to help prevent flooding, LANL provided terrain mapping services for the Pueblo’s fire recovery efforts, and the Subcontractor Consortium provided heavy equipment to deal with flood damage. In addition, LANS established a $50,000 fund to reimburse small businesses that provided support to the community and the emergency personnel dealing with the wildfire.  

“I’d also like to point out how critical it was that the community reached out to help us in our time of need. I cannot express how grateful I am to the residents and elected officials of Northern New Mexico who immediately called with offers of assistance as it became clear the fire was going to threaten the laboratory and the residents of Los Alamos.”

It’s been seven months since McMillan took over the director duties and he said he continues to marvel at the quality of science being done at Los Alamos.

McMillan credits his employees for the work they have done.

But he also knows there are some big challenges ahead for the lab especially when it comes to budgetary constraints.

“The nation is taking a hard look at what it can afford, while at the same time losing ground to global competitors in science and technology. Although the question of what we can afford will be answered elsewhere, we at the lab must play a role in keeping America competitive and secure,” McMillan said.

“The lab must compete on the world stage to attract exceptional scientists, engineers, and technicians. They are the ones who will answer questions that have not even occurred to us today.”