The three college programs preparing students for LANL jobs and pit production work are Santa Fe Community College’s Special Materials Machinist Pipeline Program; Northern New Mexico College’s Radiation Protection Program; and the Nuclear Enterprise Science and Technology program at the University of New Mexico-Los Alamos (UNM-LA).

(UNM-LA and Northern New Mexico College are also collaborating with N3B, the lab’s legacy waste contractor, on other related programs, including Nuclear Operator Apprenticeship Program, Radiological Control Technician Boot Camp and Waste Processing Operator Boot Camp.)

Graduates of the programs, which hand out certificates and Associate’s degrees, aren’t heading to the lab in droves. Instead, they make up a small fraction of each college’s already small student body. According to a recent GAO report, that in itself may signal a revealing trend: that Triad National Security, the triumvirate of entities currently managing the lab, “has already depleted the local talent pool in northern New Mexico.” 

Still, the three programs offer steady contributions to the labor pool, helping LANL manage growth and stem attrition. Students who enter the radiation protection or machinist programs — which both predate the lab’s expansion — have the choice of applying for a special lab cohort with intensive instruction. Their tuition is fully covered and they receive specialized training via paid internships. 

The curricula for radiation control technicians and machinists are developed with the help of expert consultants and include instruction regarding potential hazards, a lab spokesperson wrote in response to questions from Searchlight New Mexico. Students “take part in numerous trainings about the safety procedures required for working with hazardous materials – which they will work with only in low hazard conditions under supervision, wearing appropriate safety equipment, until graduation.” 

Below is a rundown of the separate programs and what graduates can expect to earn. 

Radiation Control Technicians

Northern New Mexico College’s radiation protection program was established in 1991, graduating no more than two to three students a year. 

In 2019, the school became the first of the three regional colleges to join the pipeline. Its coursework trains students to understand “special nuclear materials;” control radioactive contamination; work with equipment and tools common to Technical Area 55 (TA-55); and maintain safety, security and quality, according to an internal document received in a public records request.

Northern New Mexico College sends about 10 students into the lab every year, said Stephanie Archuleta, division leader of Radiation Protection at LANL. “Of those students, we pay for their tuition fees, books and time in class.”

Students also have the opportunity to work at the lab to get experience; they are paid at the same rate as other undergraduate students. 

Starting pay: $60,000

Special Materials Machinists

Santa Fe Community College was chosen to participate in the pipeline because it already had a well-established general machinist program, created in 2016. 

“We won’t pass a student — LANL or non-LANL — if they do not understand safety parameters,” said Miguel Maestas, the lead faculty member in the school’s Engineering Technologies program. Not all students seeking to become machinists enter the pipeline and end up working with radioactive materials, he said. But those who do are ushered into rigorous journeyman training before they ultimately head to TA-55, the home of the pit project. 

An internal document shows that these jobs are particularly hard to keep and fill, entailing a “multi-year process to recruit, hire, train, mentor and obtain security clearances required for fully qualified and adequately trained SMMs.”

Twenty Santa Fe Community College graduates have so far been pipelined into LANL, according to a lab spokesperson.

Starting pay: Approximately $56,000 (the most qualified machinists can make up to $133,000, according to job listings).

Nuclear Enterprise Science and Technology (NEST)

The lab’s NEST program was designed for existing employees who already have a security clearance, and is seen as a form of professional development, according to LANL. Because of the difficult nature of the training — how to work within the sealed enclosure of a glovebox — LANL provides “all the expertise and the instructors,” said Stephen Schreiber, who works in weapons production as the technical director of the lab’s office of Science, Technology and Engineering. “It’s a type of education that you can’t get anywhere else in the United States.” 

To date, 10 students have been certified via this program. 

Currently, the plant has 345 fissile material handlers — people working with radioactive materials. It’s a number the lab seeks to hold steady. 

There is no immediate pay increase for NEST training; however, the certification factors into a lab employee’s end-of-year review. 

Raised in the northern New Mexican village of Truchas, Alicia Inez Guzmán has written about histories of place, identity, and land use in New Mexico. She brings this knowledge to her current role at Searchlight,...