Los Alamos National Labs with logo 2021

"The greatest opportunity of my lifetime"

Lisa Gordon-Hagerty shares her experiences leading the National Nuclear Security Administration and working at a national laboratory (spoiler alert: it wasn’t Los Alamos).
February 16, 2021
Lisa Gordon-Hagerty and Ben Ray Lujan

Lisa Gordon-Hagerty and New Mexico Congressman (now Senator) Ben Ray Lujan attend a media event at the Laboratory’s historic V-Site in July 2020. In the 1940s, V-Site was the high-explosives facility where the Gadget was assembled prior to its detonation at the Trinity site.CREDIT: Los Alamos National Laboratory

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"I’m one of the few people who has worked in a plutonium facility and been a bureaucrat—I view that as a badge of honor."- Lisa Gordon-Hagerty

By Whitney Spivey

Growing up in Michigan, Lisa Gordon-Hagerty’s father, a World War II veteran, was a police officer for the city of Detroit. “Besides that, I didn’t have much exposure to the military or to national security,” she says. “But national security always interested me.”

Fast forward more than 30 years, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find someone who knows more about national security. From February 2018 to November 2020, Gordon-Hagerty served as administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA). Part of the Department of Energy, the NNSA is responsible for the safety, security, and effectiveness of the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile. (One way it does this is by operating nuclear weapons laboratories, such as Los Alamos.) NNSA also works to reduce global danger from weapons of mass destruction and responds to nuclear and radiological emergencies in the United States and abroad.

Gordon-Hagerty’s work in counterterrorism, nonproliferation, and nuclear security has earned her several pop-culture comparisons. In 1997, for example, when Gordon-Hagerty was the director of the Office of Emergency Response Defense Programs at the Department of Energy, Peacemaker, a fictional film starring Nicole Kidman and George Clooney, had just been released.

“The movie portrays nuclear emergency search teams springing into action to save New York from a terrorist nuclear weapon,” explained Pennsylvania Congressman Curt Weldon during a hearing of the Military Research and Development Subcommittee of the House National Security Committee. “Today, if a terrorist event such as portrayed in Peacemaker were to actually occur, Ms. Gordon-Hagerty would be doing Nicole Kidman’s job, coordinating our response to the terrorist threat.”

Now, looking back, Gordon-Hagerty says she’s “flattered by those comparisons” and that “some of them are pretty amusing.” She’s quick to note though, that any success she’s had is the result of a lot of behind-the-scenes teamwork. “I have been surrounded by experts,” she says. “It just happened that I was the leader, so I was the face of it.”

The concept of teamwork—of supporting the 50,000 men and women of the national security enterprise—came up often in Gordon‑Hagerty’s December 2020 conversation with National Security Science. “Serving as NNSA administrator was my pleasure, the greatest opportunity of my lifetime, because of these dedicated men and women who are executing incredibly important work for our nation,” she says. “It was an honor to be able to lead them in this incredibly important and critical mission.”

Read on for more on Gordon-Hagerty’s legacy of service and contributions to the nuclear enterprise.

A woman at a podium.

Lisa Gordon-Hagerty and New Mexico Congressman (now Senator) Ben Ray Lujan attend a media event at the Laboratory’s historic V-Site in July 2020. In the 1940s, V-Site was the high-explosives facility where the Gadget was assembled prior to its detonation at the Trinity site.

You started working at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in 1986. How did you decide to work there, and what were you doing?

I attended graduate school in health physics at the University of Michigan and conducted my master’s thesis work at the Savannah River Plant in South Carolina. [Starting in the 1950s, the Savannah River Plant—renamed the Savannah River Site in 1989— produced materials used in nuclear weapons, such as tritium and plutonium-239.] That was my first entrée into national security and the nuclear security enterprise. Savannah River offered me a position after graduate school. There was also an opportunity at a place called Rocky Flats Plant—good on me for not going there!

On a more serious note, all five of my siblings and I are graduates of the University of Michigan, and four of the six of us, shortly after school, made our way out to California’s East Bay. We have an incredibly close-knit family, so that’s what made my decision to join Livermore that much easier—and besides that, I was actually going to be a health physicist. I was going to use my skillset at one of the most famous national laboratories in the world.

What were your first impressions of the national laboratories—not just Livermore but also Los Alamos?

In the three and a half years I was at Livermore, I was most intrigued by the breadth of work done there. It wasn’t just about national security or the nuclear deterrent; there was so much science and engineering in just about every field imaginable. That being said, at that time, the United States was still conducting underground explosive testing, and Livermore had testing responsibilities. Learning about the importance of testing was quite insightful and later informed my thinking as administrator.

As a health physicist, I worked in Livermore’s plutonium facility alongside great technicians, metallurgists, actinide chemists, and physicists. I believe I’m one of the few people who has worked in a plutonium facility and been a bureaucrat—I view that as a badge of honor.

During that time, I was also the x-ray safety person for Livermore, and I had an opportunity to come to New Mexico to visit with the x-ray safety team at Los Alamos. Even 30 years ago, what I saw there was a robust health and safety program. It was obvious that Los Alamos knew how to work safely with highly hazardous materials—but materials that make a great contribution to our national security.

After Livermore, you moved to Washington, D.C., to work on the United States House Committee on Energy and Commerce. Why did you decide to make the transition into government?

When I was at Livermore, I met a professional staff member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee who needed a person with technical expertise. As a result, I found my way to Washington, D.C., on a one-year detail [short-term assignment] at the request of the ranking member of the committee.

I was able to, due to my technical expertise, help balance the playing field—to provide some modicum of sense to members of Congress who were conducting oversight to missions that involved plutonium or highly enriched uranium. Most people don’t know about plutonium and uranium; they just hear about the bad things, never taking the time to study the invaluable missions that are executed with these materials. What I tried to do was provide some objectivity and to share how operations were being executed at the national labs, plants, and sites.

I had every intention that I would return to Livermore, but that one year turned into two years, which turned into 30 years, and here I am, still in Washington.

That short-term assignment was pivotal to your career in that it brought you to Washington, D.C. But how did it change your perception of the relationship between scientists and policy makers?

Those two years as a professional staff member are really important and a critical detail in my career. I recall working at Livermore and more than once thinking, “What are those bureaucrats in Washington thinking? Why do they need this now? Why are they making up these silly rules?”

When I came to Washington, I gained a new appreciation for why the federal staff was asking for an issue paper on plutonium or metallurgy or a particular weapons system. Having interactions with both headquarters and the field opens up the aperture for what is really going on and how requirements are developed for our programs. It’s really a two-way street, and at the end of the day, most importantly, we’re on the same team. It’s also one of the reasons, during my tenure as administrator, I was so keen on the NNSA workforce taking advantage of one-and two-year details to other parts of the nuclear security enterprise.

You led the NNSA for nearly three years. What was the most rewarding part of that experience?

My goal has always been and continues to be to support our nation’s nuclear security and our national security program. My intent, actually, was never to be the administrator, but I  was honored and humbled to serve in that capacity. I don’t regret a minute of it. Working with the fine men and women of NNSA has truly been the highlight of my career.

NNSA could have the best facilities and state-of-the-art supercomputers, but without the dedicated people of the enterprise, we’re nothing. I used to joke that my job will be done when I’m able to shake the hand of every man and woman throughout the NNSA enterprise and thank them for their duty and commitment to our nation. Most Americans will never have any idea about the contributions only NNSA can make to our nuclear deterrent, but at least there would be someone to thank our workforce for its dedicated support to the mission.

Two people standing near a glovebox.

Lisa Gordon-Hagerty visits the Lab’s Plutonium Facility during a visit to Los Alamos in July 2020.

Can you talk about your leadership style?

As administrator, my leadership style was to make fully informed decisions in a coordinated and integrated fashion. I allowed people to exercise their expertise by thinking about health, safety, and security from different perspectives. I asked the team to bring me their issues, to show me how we could execute our missions safely and “get me to yes.”

Leading means something, and one person has to lead. I took charge of the organization, and it was an invaluable experience. Hopefully, I made a difference in our national security and represented the fine men and women as best I could. I believe that every single person in an organization matters. Every single person—whether you’re a welder, a pipe fitter, administrative assistant, or a primary designer—every single person contributes to our nation’s national security. No one is more important than anyone else, and everyone contributes.

What are your biggest contributions to the nuclear enterprise?

Reestablishing a plutonium production capability in the United States and ensuring that Congress and the executive branch understood the implications of that capability is perhaps my biggest contribution.

Further, I wanted to ensure that NNSA had the budget to rebuild the necessary infrastructure and hire the workforce of the future. Our workforce currently executes missions that no one else can do in 50-plus-year-old facilities. Constructing new nuclear facilities is going to take 10–20 years, and we must concurrently maintain the existing infrastructure—both of which require adequate funding, and I believe we achieved that important step.

Additionally, 40 percent of the workforce is going to be retirement-eligible in the next five years. But to replace them with the best, brightest, and most qualified new hires, we need to have a consistent budget throughout the NNSA enterprise. The worst thing that could happen is to hire these brilliant people for a year or two and then have to lay them off. They will never return to the NNSA family.

Two people standing near a glovebox.

Lisa Gordon-Hagerty visits the Lab’s Plutonium Facility in 2019.

How do we get people interested in the NNSA family in the first place? How do we encourage kids to pursue STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) opportunities?

I certainly advocate for girls and young women to go into STEM, and making sure they have access to and are interested in STEM fields is critical. The significant efforts undertaken by the nuclear security enterprise have been successful, but there’s more work to do. This is not a singular “male or a female” topic but a significant U.S. issue that we need to tackle together to keep our national security strong here in the United States. That being said, we should do everything we possibly can to get girls interested in national security, and I always jump at the chance to speak with girls and advocate their studying science and engineering—because it’s fun! I may sound like a nerd, but it’s truly fun.

As administrator, I always supported “Take your kid to work day.” Our employees would bring their children, and I loved it. To me, those days gave children unique insight into what their parents’ workplace is like, as well as an opportunity to see firsthand that there are others dedicated to serving national security missions. Perhaps they’ll remember that in the future.

More broadly, NNSA supports STEM education and minority-serving programs by contributing more than $100 million a year across the nation’s education system. That funding and support must continue; our nation will suffer otherwise.

At the end of the day, my main message I want to send to women and men, boys and girls, is to reach for the stars no matter what area you’re interested in—administration, public affairs, science and engineering, anything. Believe in yourself. Take advantage of every opportunity that’s presented to you. I hope I can continue to serve as a model of that philosophy.

What advice do you have for people interested in working at one of our national laboratories?

The national laboratories are incredible places to work. National laboratories offer opportunities unlike any private sector company or any other government organization because there are so many different mission areas being executed every day. Take NASA’s Mission to Mars. Los Alamos made the heat source for the Perseverance rover in the plutonium facility where they work on materials for our nuclear deterrent. That’s a perfect example of the strength and scope of the national laboratories.

As administrator, I tried to ensure that everyone outside of our enterprise understood what it takes to work at Los Alamos and our national labs, plants, and sites. You don’t walk in off the street. Obtaining a security clearance, working in glovebox operations, and becoming a nuclear weapon designer all take several years of training—these are not things that can be handled in a day or that just anybody can do. I saw firsthand the grit and the dedication of every single person in the workforce, and I thank them from the bottom of my heart for the work they’re doing for our great nation.