Los Alamos National Laboratory

Los Alamos National Laboratory

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Busy bee

As a containment scientist at the Laboratory and as a beekeeper at home, Chris Bradley cultivates a broad-minded outlook on life that enables him to find solutions to challenging problems.
July 18, 2019
bees

During a trip to Kazakhstan in 2012, containment scientist Chris Bradly supervised the closing of the last Soviet test tunnel.CREDIT: Chris Bradley

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“I like being diverse in my thinking. Thinking in broad terms—it really makes life much more interesting.”- Chris Bradley

By Octavio Ramos

Dressed in a cotton suit and a hat with a wire-reinforced veil, Christopher Bradley of the Laboratory’s Geophysics group kneels before a wooden box, opens its lid, and carefully extracts a frame, sending hundreds of bees into the air. Most of the buzzing insects pay no mind to Bradley, who inspects the honeycombed frame for brood (the eggs, larvae, and pupae of honeybees) and then slides the frame back into place.

Bradley is an amateur beekeeper, his hives located in the backyard of his home in Chimayo, New Mexico. Like other beekeepers, Bradley has experienced his ups and downs with the hobby, but it’s the importance of bees in nature, particularly their pollination of plants, that keeps him in the game.

“I am not a professional beekeeper by any means,” Bradley notes. “But there’ve been years when the bees have delivered good crops of honey, which my wife and I have used as Christmas presents for our friends and family.”

From geologist to containment scientist

After graduating from Los Alamos High School, Bradley attended the University of New Mexico, where he earned a geology degree. After a short stint with the United States Geological Survey, Bradley secured a Laboratory summer student position, where he worked on the Hot Dry Rock project. It was this project that sparked Bradley’s interest in physics, so he returned to college and earned a doctorate in geophysics.

“Although I had a few job offers, the Laboratory’s offer once again won out,” Bradley says. “Coming back to the mountains was the best draw—I missed the hiking and the skiing here.”

For the past 19 years, Bradley has been a containment scientist for subcritical testing. Subcritical testing plays a significant role in safeguarding the nation’s nuclear stockpile.

“These tests form no critical mass, so there is no self-sustaining chain reaction like in a nuclear explosion,” Bradley explains. “However, these tests provide data that scientists can use to create computer simulations that help ensure the safety and reliability of our nuclear stockpile.”

Despite being subcritical, these tests consist of explosives coming into contact with special nuclear material, such as plutonium and uranium. It’s up to containment scientists to ensure that these materials are not released into the uncontrolled environment outside the experiment chamber, which is located in an underground complex at the Nevada National Security Site (NNSS).

“Geophysics, mechanical engineering, and knowledge of explosives and nuclear safety—you mix all these broad subject areas and you have a containment guy,” Bradley notes. “My first subcritical test was in 2001. In 2019, I started teaching the next generation of containment scientists about subcritical tests, such as ‘Vega,’ which took place earlier this year at the NNSS.”

Cultivating apples and honey

Bradley met his wife, Nancy, while he was a postdoc and she was working on a graduate degree. “We bought this house in Chimayo—it was a real fixer-upper,” he says with a laugh. “The electricity consisted of a power cord nailed to the ceiling vigas and the plumbing was a piece of PVC pipe that had been pounded through an adobe wall.”

The home’s backyard was a different matter. “The house also came with its own apple orchard,” Bradley says. “If you know anything about Chimayo, you know the place is all about apples. As we learned more about apples, we also hit upon the idea of keeping bees. My wife—who is a geologist and an organic farmer—and I have been beekeepers for about 19 years.”

Cultivating a problem-solving outlook

Originally trained as a theoretical and computational scientist, Bradley found that he had to think broadly rather than specifically when he began working as a containment scientist. “Instead of focusing just on writing code to solve a specific problem, I found that I needed to think in broad terms to address unexpected problems like penetrating welds on a barrier, gas blocks on a cable, and what explosives might do when they contact aged metal.”

Over time, Bradley found that such broad thinking influenced his beekeeping hobby. “Rather than focus on observing a bee’s particular characteristics, I like to sit back and watch bees just to see what happens,” Bradley says. “Such observations have enabled me, for example, to identify what pollen is coming back to the hive just by examining the residue on a bee’s legs. It’s fascinating what bees have taught me . . . and continue to teach me.”


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A swarm of bees in Chris Bradley’s backyard in Chimayo, New Mexico.