NNSA breaks ground on new ABQ facility

By:  Jessica Dyer

Some of the country’s most sensitive nuclear security functions are performed in outdated, run-down buildings on Kirtland Air Force Base.

The National Nuclear Security Administration on Monday began construction on a 330,000-square-foot building in Southeast Albuquerque that will eventually house about 1,200 government employees and contractors. That workforce is now scattered throughout 25 structures that U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., said do not reflect the advanced nature of their duties.

Heinrich and U.S. Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a fellow Democrat, toured the existing facilities in early 2016, and the experience prompted the state’s congressional delegation to push for funding for a replacement structure.

Heinrich recalled seeing “the most advanced nuclear workforce on the face of the planet” operating out of decrepit old barracks – a detriment for officials trying to recruit talented workers who may also have opportunities at places such as Google or Facebook.

“Putting (those employees) in 60-year-old barracks with substandard heating and cooling doesn’t send the message that we want to bring the best and brightest here,” Heinrich said after a groundbreaking ceremony on the lot – now just dirt and dry shrubs – where the building designed to meet LEED gold standards will rise. “This building will send that message. … We can compete with anyplace in the United States for quality of life; now we’ll have the work environment to match.”

The project has secured $98 million in federal funding, and an additional $48 million is expected in the next budget cycle. It’s in the National Defense Authorization Act and supported by President Donald Trump’s budget submission, according to Lisa Gordon-Hagerty, U.S. Department of Energy undersecretary for nuclear security and NNSA administrator.

Lujan Grisham lauded Congress and the administration for moving quickly – at least in federal government terms – on the project.

“I apologize for the way Congress sometimes doesn’t work,” she said. “(But) getting this kind of money in two years and having this kind of commitment is actually a pretty damn good pace.”

Construction will take about 30 months, after which NNSA-affiliated engineers and other support staff can begin relocating. Kirtland’s campus will expand to include the building site after construction.

Crews will eventually demolish most of the buildings the workforce currently occupies.

“Many buildings being replaced by this new facility were built before most of us were born and certainly long before the advanced technologies we use every day were invented. Despite these untenable conditions, our workforce has found the necessary work-arounds to get the job done,” Gordon-Hagerty said during Monday’s ceremony. “Well, no more.”

She said the new structure will allow the workforce to “collaborate, plan, strategize and innovate in a state-of-the-art facility.”

The NNSA is a semiautonomous agency within the Department of Energy that specializes in the “military application of nuclear science.” It oversees operations at Sandia National Laboratories and Los Alamos National Laboratory.