What began as a summer internship for Joseph Bell six years ago led to valuable research for CNS, a master’s degree, doctoral study, and — on August 3 — the offer of a permanent job at Y‑12.
Joseph Bell, a sixth‑year intern in the NNSA’s Minority Serving Institution Partnership Program, has forged key relationships with future collaborators and made lasting friendships.
Now in his sixth year as an intern in the National Nuclear Security Administration’s Minority Serving Institution Partnership Program, Bell is pursuing his Ph.D. in physics by researching new types of radiation detectors and how they can be applied in nuclear nonproliferation.
Pantex and Y-12 have taken part in the program since 2013, and this summer hosted eight MSIPP interns at each site. NNSA designed the program to build a sustainable pipeline between Department of Energy sites/labs and minority serving universities and colleges in science, technology, engineering, and math disciplines. Six DOE national labs and two national security sites participate in the program. (Pantex and Y‑12 are considered one site under CNS. Kansas City National Security Campus is the second.)
Dr. Ashley Stowe, a manager in the Engineering Technical Operations Group, has directed the program for CNS since 2014.
“The MSIPP is a workforce development program that works with minority‑serving colleges in order to help build their campus infrastructures and curriculums to ultimately create opportunities for their students to get NNSA STEM jobs,” Stowe said. “We use the program as a way to target critical skill needs at both Pantex and Y‑12.”
The consortium‑based teams focus on STEM research areas and is funded through NNSA grants to the universities, which choose the consortia focus in needed areas. Stowe said the consortia have changed through the years, as have the participating higher education institutions. This year the areas of research include electrical engineering and sensors, lithium and uranium additive manufacturing, explosives technology, laser-based spectroscopy, composite materials and sensors, radiation studies and cyber.
Stowe said he feels deep pride when mentoring the interns and talking about their successes. A number of former interns now work at the sites, including Maxx Jackson, who joined CNS the year after his internship and now conducts research in materials science at Y‑12. Next summer, Bell will begin his full‑time employment after he completes his doctorate this school year.
“I have a lot of passion for this program. We’re creating opportunities for these talented young people, and making sure we support them to become the best young scientists and engineers,’ Stowe said.
Several interns have returned for multiple years, but Bell’s six years is a record. Stowe first met Bell at Fisk University in Nashville when he was beginning work on his master’s degree. Bell’s research project that first summer was so successful it became his master’s thesis. That goal met, he moved on to pursuing a doctorate through the Fisk‑Vanderbilt Bridge Program.
Bell said in addition to science and research, he has forged key relationships with future collaborators and made lasting friendships.
”MSIPP/CNS has given me the opportunity to pursue high-level research in both an academic setting and a government facility. A setting like this allows me to see the effects of my work on a much larger scale,” Bell said.
Texas Tech rising senior Danica Ruiz is completing her first MSIPP internship at Pantex. The chemical engineering major has spent her summer in Pantex’s gas lab, working with nondestructive evaluation.
“Working as an intern has brought my education to life,” Ruiz said. “I have seen the real‑world applications of reaction engineering. Pantex has offered me an invaluable experience, even in the midst of these uncertain times.”
Y-12 continued vital projects throughout the COVID-19 response thanks to planning and teamwork. To ensure projects remained on track and on time, team members took that strong plan and coupled it with adherence to essential health and safety protocols.
One important project that continued was construction and refurbishing of two firing ranges at the Central Training Facility (CTF). The project experienced many delays because of existing site conditions during excavation of a hillside in the affected area. As the COVID-19 response was implemented, the project was allowed to continue because the outside work allowed for social distancing. The team put other safety measures in place to protect CTF and the contractor.
Angela Oberding, project manager, said, “The ability to continue the work allowed the project to complete two major components – the creek diversion and excavation of the hillside.”
The pandemic also affected the Calciner project, where equipment is being installed for the purpose of converting salvaged and impure solutions, like rinse water, mop water, decontamination water, and lab and production by-products that contain uranium, into a powder that is more manageable, stable, and easier to store and transport. Completion of this project will reduce the amount of legacy solutions that are stored.
“Working with our NNSA customer, deliverables were identified early, giving the team time to react if changes were necessary,” Matthew Manrod, project manager, said. “Through the hard work of the CNS and federal project team, we were able to obtain CD-2/3 approval on May 29, authorizing full execution of the project.”
The project team quickly and smoothly adopted teleworking and implemented a daily meeting with core team members over Skype to discuss each day’s priorities and issues.
These projects are only two examples of what the Y-12 team was accomplishing — some via telework and many on-site — as the site’s operational status changed.
As the COVID-19 response was implemented, construction and refurbishing of two firing ranges at the Central Training Facility project continued.
More than 1,400 employees are members of the Atomic Trades and Labor Council. Without these dedicated workers, Y-12 would have difficulty meeting its mission.
Y-12 Site Manager Bill Tindal said, “It may be that I am missing sports more than usual due to COVID, but our ATLC members are the skilled players on the field. We’ve got a lot of coaches, strategists, equipment folks, and other support functions. And, it’s important that all act as an integrated organization, but, when it comes right down to it, it’s the skill player on the field that adds value.”
These skill players include machinists, welders, chemical operators, janitors, truck drivers, and electricians to name a few. In fact, their occupations are ones in need throughout the country. Their careers are ones that are needed now and into the future, so much so that during 2019, Y-12 visited schools to share opportunities available in trades. Educational outreach events focused on the various trades careers, and students interacted with electricians, carpenters, insulators, painters, and machinists. ATLC members share career plans and the advantages of the being an apprentice and “earn while they learn.”
Tindal said, “I am thankful for the skill and commitment shown by our ATLC colleagues. But just as important, I am thankful for the way they work with all of us to create an integrated organization.”
Mike Thompson, ATLC president, said, “Our ATLC members contribute an important piece to the end goal. Every aspect of what they do helps Y-12 function overall.”
Changing conditions aren’t new to any of us, especially now as we deal with social distancing and COVID controls. It’s an even larger change when the needed safety implementations create inconveniences: briefing areas moved, break areas reconfigured, and protocol changed for communicating with coworkers.
“Our workforce has always adjusted to changing conditions, circumstances, and requirements, and we will adjust accordingly to succeed under the current conditions,” Thompson said. “The safety slogan of being your brother’s keeper takes on additional meaning as we operate under new concerns of heightened awareness, for ourselves and each other.”
Reed Mullins, senior director of Y-12 Production Operations, said, “It is frustrating when your normal routine with your coworkers is interrupted, and I appreciate our folks who have risen to the challenge and understand that these changes are necessary. It is not fun wearing a face covering for hours, but that is currently the need.”
Mullins couldn’t resist building on Tindal’s analogy. “For us to be on the field and to play, we must wear the appropriate equipment to ensure we protect our teammates. Even with these added distractions and frustrations, we have been able to bring our processes back online and deliver our mission for the nation. I am thankful for those men and women who make this place run each day.”
Y-12’s skill players in Production Operations hold a meeting while practicing social distancing. (This photo was taken before mandatory face coverings were required while on-site.)
Y-12 nurse Denise Howard checks an employee’s blood pressure.
The Pantex and Y-12 Occupational Health Services departments have always had a mission to maintain and improve the safety, health, and wellness of employees in the workplace, and their work is more important now than ever before. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, they’ve proven themselves responsive, adaptable, and innovative. OHS is rising to the challenges of meeting ongoing occupational health needs with reduced staffing levels, finding ways to improve for the future, and even blazing new trails.
“I don’t think anyone in Y-12 OHS will ever forget that Monday in March when we learned we had our first case,” said Gary Hall, Y-12 OHS senior manager. “I looked around the room, and I think every single person there felt the tsunami of change coming fast our way. In hindsight, I think it was our exceptional people skills that got us through — we needed to quickly problem solve and then execute. We talked our way through the anxiety our coworkers were feeling.”
To practice proper social distancing, the Pantex and Y-12 groups alternated medical and administrative staff on site with weekly shifts. Even with reduced on site staffing levels, personnel were still able to provide fitness for duty and case management functions.
Procedures that didn’t allow for social distancing, such as audio and pulmonary function tests and physical therapy, have been paused to protect the providers and patients. For other procedures, the groups looked for new ways of meeting requirements.
Pantex and Y-12 OHS started telepsychology, or virtual psychology exams. With the employee in one room and the psychologist in another room, they connect via Skype. The simple solution was a first in the Nuclear Security Enterprise. OHS hopes to soon allow psychologists to offer this service while teleworking from home to further reduce the amount of clinical staff on-site.
Pantex has also changed procedures for alcohol testing. To reduce use of breathalyzer tests and protect Fire Department personnel administering the test, employees called in to work off-shifts now receive saliva testing as a pre-screening and breath alcohol tests only following a positive saliva test.
In addition to providing ongoing health support to the plants, both OHS departments played a major role in the sites’ response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Site Operational Medical Directors Dr. Michael Paston and Dr. Warren Sayre helped develop policies and procedures to protect on site employees and prepare for when the workforce returns during the three stages of the recovery plan.
“We are functioning like our own public health department. The case management staff, led by nurse Melva Davis, is perfecting contact tracing, and we are coordinating with the Amarillo Public Health Department,” said Paston.
Don Morris, Pantex OHS senior manager, said the situation has also encouraged the team to identify opportunities for improvement in other internal processes.
“In some ways, I don’t think we will ever go back to the way we used to do business,” Morris said.
The continuous improvement demonstrated by OHS has not only helped reduce the spread of COVID-19 at both sites but also will further improve the quality of service provided in the future.
Dr. Mark Izzard conducts a telepsychology session from his office at Pantex.
Students who participated in the Y-12 Cybersecurity Camps, in partnership with Roane State Community College, experienced camp online, a new way of holding summer camp this year. The event was planned to be held at the RSCC Oak Ridge campus, but because of the COVID 19 pandemic, the camp became a virtual one.
Dr. George Meghabghab, director of the RSCC Computer Information Technology program, said, “Participation was great! Everybody was attentive, and it was fun and engaging.”
Y-12 and RSCC offered the cybersecurity camp to middle and high school age students wanting to build critical-thinking skills and habits to safely navigate in today’s online communities.
“Technology is an essential part of our everyday lives. It’s in the nation’s best interest for our next generation workforce to become interested in careers in cybersecurity,” said CNS educational outreach coordinator Kristin Waldschlager.
During the camp, students solved fictional cyber crime scenes using digital forensics, scanning, and data reconnaissance to unravel clue.
The 30 students were from a combination of homeschooled, public, and private schools.
Shown in the photo are two siblings who attended this summer’s online cybercamp from the comfort of their own home.