Officials with The Texas A&M University System announced Thursday that the Texas A&M Engineering Experiment Station (TEES) will help address critical needs in the nation’s nuclear weapons stockpile by providing technical expertise, workforce development and training at the Pantex Plant, the nation’s primary facility for the final assembly, dismantlement and maintenance of nuclear weapons.
The Pantex Plant, northeast of Amarillo, is one of the Panhandle region’s largest employers with nearly 4,000 employees, including nuclear, electrical, mechanical and computer engineers as well as pipefitters and maintenance workers.
Consolidated Nuclear Security, LLC (CNS), which manages and operates the plant, signed a memorandum of understanding with TEES, a state agency within The Texas A&M University System, in February. Then in April, the Texas A&M System Board of Regents authorized the engineering state agency to sublease up to 16,000 square feet of space at the newly opened John C. Drummond Center, located adjacent to the Pantex Plant.
“CNS approached TEES about the many opportunities for collaboration in research and training, education, professional development and joint program development at Pantex,” said John Sharp, Texas A&M System Chancellor. “The partnership accelerates access for TEES to partner with U.S. Department of Energy employees and researchers housed inside the secured-areas of Pantex Plant.”
Chancellor Sharp and Texas A&M System officials see the partnership with CNS at the Pantex Plant as a natural extension of the System’s commitment to the nuclear weapons industry. In November, Triad National Security, LLC of which the Texas A&M System is a partner, began the management and operation of the nation’s premiere nuclear weapons laboratory, Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.
CNS manages the Pantex facility under a contract from the U.S. Department of Energy/National Nuclear Security Administration. As an additional way to elevate and grow this collaboration, CNS has expressed interest in TEES leading a consortium of universities in specific research areas. This would include Texas A&M University in College Station and West Texas A&M University in Canyon, as well as other universities from Texas and other states.
“CNS is pleased to partner with Texas A&M System researchers in this joint venture and is confident of a mutually beneficial relationship going forward in research and development for national defense,” said Mike Beck, CNS Vice President of Mission Engineering. “The goal is to increase the level of interaction between the two organizations to address areas of mutual interest and mission-critical challenges and to serve as an incubator for new ideas in developing technical approaches to national defense challenges.”
The Texas A&M System’s statewide network of universities will provide a substantial amount of qualified future Pantex workers from around the state and is a natural partner due to a longstanding commitment to national security as demonstrated by a 2017 DOD Defense Security Service Award for Excellence in Counterintelligence.
“Nuclear safety and security are paramount to our national defense, and The Texas A&M University System recognizes that our strengths and purpose align well with the mission and overall efforts at Pantex,” said M. Katherine Banks, Texas A&M System Vice Chancellor of Engineering and National Laboratories, Texas A&M Engineering Dean and TEES Agency Director. “We are excited to establish research and development activities with Pantex and look forward to future collaborations as we work together in service to the National Nuclear Security Administration.”
“As an academic research institution serving the geographical region where this exciting partnership is unfolding, West Texas A&M University proudly partners with CNS and The Texas A&M University System at the Pantex Plant to focus attention, research and resolution on the challenges and opportunities that are unique in the advancement of nuclear security,” said Dr. Walter Wendler, West Texas A&M University President. “Our faculty and students will work in collaboration with the Texas A&M Engineering Experiment Station to drive new knowledge generation, benefiting the region, the state and the nation.”
Partnership opportunities include designing sensors and instrumentation for blast measurements, investigating the use of augmented and virtual reality training for plant operations, additive manufacturing certification, training for first responders and facility safety and security.
Further, potential workforce development programs could include certificate and continuing education courses on cybersecurity, nuclear safety, fire safety, criticality engineering and data analytics, as well as local programmatic opportunities by TEES-Nuclear Power Institute programs available to school districts and community colleges in the Panhandle region.