Article by Jim Ray, Pantex Wildlife Biologist/Scientist
This August and September time frame has long been thought of as a special time by Pantex Agronomist, Monty Schoenhals, and myself. The reason is two-fold; these months are the peak time period when monarch butterflies are drifting through the region and when an abundance of milkweeds are in bloom and hosting an impressive number of monarch caterpillars. We have our own interest in the monarch’s use of this 18,000-acre federal facility and the Texas Panhandle as a whole, but we also now have justification to study and protect the monarch and the habitats that it and other pollinators so desperately need for survival. The White House Pollinator Initiative was announced in early 2014, and we have busied ourselves with mapping colonies of milkweed, documenting caterpillars, proposing research, and, although unsuccessful so far, we are applying for grants.
Migrating monarch butterflies cluster on elm trees after resting through the night at Pantex.
Our current philosophies are to manage for and protect wildflowers through sound range management and adjusted mowing practices, have a strong focus on milkweeds, and monitor monarch production on the site. We are excited that we find an abundance of milkweeds including six species, 1) antelope-horns (Asclepias asperula), 2) broad-leaf (A. latafolia), 3) Engelmann’s (A. engelmanniana), 4) horsetail (A. subverticillata), 5) plains (A. pumila), and 6) whorled (A. verticillata) milkweed! Go out and locate a colony of horsetail, plains or whorled milkweed right now, and you will see monarchs visiting for nectar and possibly laying eggs.
Time will only tell if the monarch butterfly can rebound from historically low populations, but we can certainly do our part here at Pantex and even in backyards across this nation. Study up on native plants that are important to our native pollinators. Protect the ones in our landscapes and plant them on your properties. Now is a particularly good time to protect and plant milkweeds. See which ones should be in your area and search for seed for those species. At a minimum, migrating monarchs will need nectar sources, and many will lay eggs on milkweeds in order to produce that next generation that has a better chance of reaching points south on their journey to their wintering sites in Mexico. We here at Pantex hope that we are able to contribute to that great cause.
A monarch caterpillar feeding on horsetail milkweed at the Pantex Plant in 2015
Everyone loves that new car smell, as the saying goes, but do you know what causes it? The polymer materials used to build the car’s interior release volatile organic compounds, and the sun’s heat through the windshield is a stressor that increases this release.
Pantex uses polymers to render explosives stable and shapeable during the plastic bonded explosives (PBX) weapons assembly process. When weapons are returned from the stockpile, scientists evaluate the integrity of the explosives and research to determine the stressors (heat, moisture, acid, and radioactivity) that cause polymers in explosives to degrade or fail.
A two year collaboration between Pantex scientists and polymer experts from Tulane University produced a new and unique method of testing some of the polymers Pantex uses.
Pantex scientist Stephanie Steelman, the principal investigator on the project, approached researchers from the Tulane Center for Polymer Reaction Monitoring and Characterization (PolyRMC) after a course that introduced her to Simultaneous Multiple Sample Light Scattering (SMSLS) analysis.
Pantex scientist Stephanie Steelman works with the SMSLS analysis instrument. Collaboration between Pantex and Tulane University developed a new method of analyzing polymers.
Steelman directs Pantex’s Gel Permeation Chromatography Lab (GPC). “GPC is used to monitor the molecular weight of the polymers in PBXs,” she said. “SMSLS allows us to determine which stressors cause polymers to degrade or fail on the molecular level when in solution, as well as determine when the polymers are in equilibrium for GPC testing.”
Steelman offered another car analogy to help explain the concept.
“The seats in a car eventually wear out. Wouldn’t it be nice to know when they’re going to wear out ahead of time? What would cause them to wear out? Then we’d know when to replace them,” she said.
When Steelman first learned about SMSLS, it was being used only in pharmaceutical and university settings. She thought it could be used at Pantex as well. The researchers at PolyRMC enthusiastically agreed and collaboration began in 2013, with funding from Plant Directed Research, Development, and Demonstration.
The SMSLS instrument takes light-scattering measurements at a rate of up to 10 data points per second to identify degradation of polymers in solution. The SMSLS data identified unique signatures for polymer degradation under temperature stressors. This information can be particularly useful in assessing performance of these polymers over time under different conditions and also build predictions about their stability over time at different temperatures.
“What I’m trying to do is build more quality into the process. SMSLS enhanced my ability to do my job, molecular weight analysis, in a much better fashion,” Steelman said. “If you don’t have the polymer in there doing its job, the explosive won’t do its job.”
After the collaboration project concluded in September 2015, the first commercial SMSLS instrument was located in the GPC Lab at Pantex. The device that scientists nicknamed “smi sls” (rhymes with missiles) bears serial no. 0001.
Alex W. Reed, associate director for Operations and Strategy at PolyRMC, said the roadmap for SMSLS initially did not include this type of polymer application.
“The collaboration with Pantex directly contributed to advancing the development and commercialization of the SMSLS technology,” Reed said. “The first SMSLS at Pantex also means that Pantex may provide some of the earliest new applications of value in the area of polymer stability and non-equilibrium processes.”
This summer, 26 college students worked at Consolidated Nuclear Security and participated in professional development, science and engineering lectures, networking events, and social activities with mentors and peers. The 2016 interns represented 16 universities from across the country and are pursuing degrees in mechanical, electrical, nuclear, and chemical engineering, as well as physics, optics, information technology, and math.
Pantex hosts summer interns (from left): Jeff Kaczmarek, Mikayla Sims, Colton Mooney, Daniel Hutton, Caitlin Bubel, and Jake Dreiling.
Ashley Stowe of Mission Engineering said the interns “are bright, hardworking and fun to interact with. They have accomplished a lot this summer. I am excited that we were able to host six interns at Pantex this summer and look forward to growing the CNS intern program further next summer.” (The six Pantex interns don’t include the two West Point cadets who also spent time at Pantex.)
CNS Student Interns Program Manager Rachel Winningham agreed. “Going forward, I would like to expand the program by providing co-op opportunities and having interns across more organizations.”
Whether they were a Pantexan or a Y-12er, one thing was certain: The interns return to college with a unique experience and the employees with whom they interacted take away something too.
Winningham said, “When you’re around the interns (even for a short timeframe), their energy rubs off on you. I want them to walk away from the internship with newly acquired skillsets, meaningful work assignments to put on their resume, and the opportunity to have networked with other interns and employees.”
Brenda Vermillion, Carson County Emergency Management coordinator, said she first thought the June 28 head‑on collision between two BNSF trains was an incredibly loud test shot at the Pantex Plant, but she quickly realized the noise was located at the edge of Panhandle, Texas. “I immediately ran outside the building, and could see the cars toppling and then the explosion,” she said.
Several Pantex response vehicles that are a cross between a normal fire engine and an engine designed for a refinery fire respond to Panhandle train derailment. Photos taken by Shelly Zimmerman.
Vermillion went immediately to the dispatch office at the Carson County Law Enforcement Center. “We were already receiving 911 calls,” she said. “I told the dispatchers to call everyone and get everything you can.”
Pantex was one of the first calls. “The response from Pantex was fantastic,” Vermillion said.
Pantex dispatched one engine when the alarm sounded, said Mike Brock, Pantex fire chief. Fire department personnel then evaluated the situation and dispatched another truck as quickly as possible. The Pantex response vehicles are a cross between a normal engine found in a city like Amarillo and an engine designed for a refinery fire, Brock explained. Intended to be fed by a high‑pressure fire loop, Brock said the truck had water pumped to it so that it could blast hundreds of gallons a minute on the blaze. One truck, he said, was manned by Pantexans and ran continuously for about 48 hours.
Pantex has to maintain a level of readiness at all times. Brock said they called off‑shift personnel and set up a rotation schedule, which allowed firefighters to rest, clean up, eat and be ready to return if needed while maintaining the site’s requirements.
“Our guys operated flawlessly, and I could not be more proud of them,” said Brock.
Carson County Judge Dan Looten agreed, saying, “We stretched everyone to the limit, but Pantex ran very well while transferring people in and out.” Hundreds of first responders from across the Texas Panhandle were sent to the small town about 10 miles from Pantex.
Pantex also provided an Incident Command Vehicle that served as a command center on one side of the train. Looten explained the length of the trains made it difficult to quickly travel from one side to the other because the railroad crossings were blocked by rail cars. “We were managing two scenes — one on the north side and one on the south,” he said. Pantex’s ICV was vital to the response, he said.
Meanwhile, Vermillion, who was running the response from the county’s emergency operations center, received a call from Pantexan Chuck Rives, who was in the Pantex emergency operations center. Rives, a member of the Pantex Emergency Management Department and team lead for the Consequence Assessment Team, was able to work with Vermillion’s team to identify areas of concern in the trains’ manifests.
“Chuck was fantastic,” said Vermillion. “We couldn’t have done it without him. He stayed on the phone the entire time.” Rives quickly pointed to his co-workers — Brenda Graham, Sheryl Moran, Raj Sheth and Teri Vigil — who sorted through dozens of pages of the trains’ manifest to identify possible hazardous cargo, material properties and toxicity information. “Their work narrowed our focus to just a few dangerous cars so that I could quickly and accurately relay information to Brenda,” Rives said.
The team also provided smoke plume modeling working with the National Atmospheric Release Advisory Center. Knowing what the Panhandle winds were expected to do was vitally important, Vermillion and Looten said. Early in the day, portions of the town were evacuated because of smoke. If the winds changed, driving the fire farther down the train, other actions would be needed to keep the community safe.
Todd Ailes, Pantex site manager, praised the response efforts. He said, “This was a tragic accident that touched the lives of hundreds of our employees who live in Panhandle. Our concern was to help our neighbors in any way possible. Pantex Fire Department, Emergency Management and Communications & Public Affairs personnel worked diligently to provide any services needed by the town, and to provide accurate updates and safe route information to our employees who live in or travel through Panhandle.”
Brock conducted an after‑action review and identified some lessons, including improved interface between the agencies, different types of equipment that could be included on the trucks and the need for new communication equipment that will enable the Pantex team to hear and respond to the other teams.
“Unfortunately, when we get called to do what we are trained to do, it is someone else’s worst day,” said Brock.
West Point. To hear or see the name, most people automatically think of honor and strength. It also makes sense that students of the U.S. Military Academy in New York would want to intern for a CNS site. This year, two West Point interns gained work experience at Pantex.
Michael Grieb (left) and Frederick Albion were Pantexans for a few months this summer as part of a Military Academy Collaboration.
“The West Point cadets we hosted, Michael Grieb and Frederick Albion, were part of a Military Academy Collaboration,” said Nate Davis of Pantex’s Engineering and Science. “Pantex typically hosts cadets as they have a nuclear engineering option in their program.”
While Davis is a first-time host to cadets, he came away with a sense of respect. “The ability of the cadets to go through military and engineering training concurrently gave me a renewed and strengthened appreciation for those who serve,” he said.
The Military Academy Collaboration’s purpose is to provide cadets “a first‑rate experience working cutting-edge research and development opportunities in disciplines and technologies of mutual interest to the Military/Service Academies, the Department of Defense, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Transportation, and to the NNSA [National Nuclear Security Administration].”
Ashley Stowe is Mission Engineering’s Intern Program lead. “It is always a privilege and honor to host West Point cadets. They bring a unique perspective to our work, and this internship allows cadets to see the manufacturing side of the nuclear arsenal.”
Davis said, “Having interns provides a great opportunity. It allows Pantex to show our customers how we work, and it’s also a potential recruitment tool.”
“This program gives us a great opportunity for collaborating with our customers in the DoD, and better allows them the chance to see firsthand the challenges Pantex faces in producing our product, as well as the chance to see our successes and technology advances,” Davis said.
Stowe said, “They are tomorrow’s leaders, and we provide a survey of our processes, procedures and overall role in the supply chain, so they are better equipped to make good decisions.”
The cadets were glad to be Pantexans for four weeks. Grieb said, “I think Pantex was a great experience. It certainly gave me an eye-opening to what future job opportunities could be in the nuclear enterprise.”
Albion was a fan too. “I’ve had a great time these past four weeks. It’s a great place to come to learn a whole lot.” More information about Military Academic Collaborations is available on the NNSA website.