Article by Jim Ray, Pantex Wildlife Biologist/Scientist
Temperatures are moderating and although delayed frequently by muddy field conditions, we were finally able to finish the annual mapping of our colonies of black-tailed prairie dogs. Mapping is accomplished by driving the boundaries of the colonies—indicated by the area of clipped vegetation beyond the outer limit of visible burrows—in a vehicle equipped with GPS equipment. If areas within the colony appear unoccupied (grown-up vegetation and unmaintained burrows), we will “cut those areas out” as unoccupied. Mapping is an easier task during the wetter years because of a more noticeable difference in vegetation height between that occurring within the colony and vegetation occurring outside the boundary of the colony.
West Texas A&M University graduate Dustin Henderson attempts to locate a study animal in a prairie dog colony at the Pantex Plant.
Less widely-distributed on the site than most people would guestimate, the annual mapping we have conducted since 1997 has shown prairie dogs occupying an average of 357.5 acres. In addition, it is pretty obvious that our moderate cattle grazing rotation, along with moisture cycles, keeps prairie dog colony sizes largely in check. Annual variation in area occupied by prairie dogs over the past 12 years has ranged from -30 to 35 percent.
Besides wanting to monitor our prairie dog colonies as a resource, we also use the data for other purposes. For example, the value of colonies to other wildlife can be determined when compared to sighting and tracking data generated from other studies, like those we and collaborators have conducted on burrowing owls and other birds, amphibians and reptiles, small mammals (e.g., grasshopper mice), and bobcats.
Amount and timing of rainfall can have magical effects on the shortgrass prairie, including inside prairie dog colonies. 2015 was a “wet” year here in the Texas Panhandle, while this year was characterized by more modest rainfall distributed nicely through the year. In 2015, we noticed the diminutive plain’s milkweed (Asclepias pumila) and monarch caterpillars were unusually abundant in our prairie dog colonies, while this year antelope horn milkweed (A. asperula) seemed to be the benefactor of recent rainfall regimes. On our last day of mapping, I paused at a number of broadleaf milkweed plants (A. latifolia) and noticed many that hosted a monarch caterpillar.
I have never seen such a high number of burrowing owls in my 17 years of mapping compared to what I observed this year. The birds were everywhere and no doubt a product of good habitat and conditions for them and their insect, amphibian, reptilian, small mammal, and avian prey.
Whether it be an occasional stroll through a prairie dog colony or spending hours upon hours mapping their boundaries, I am always amazed at what all can be found in that habitat type. Remember, it’s always a best practice to use caution around prairie dog colonies.
Simply put, prairie dog colonies—having burrows, bare ground, different vegetation species and heights, and even unique animal communities—are important in terms of diversity to wildlife here in the shortgrass prairie.
Consolidated Nuclear Security (CNS) once again has two employees participating in the Sandia National Laboratories Weapon Intern Program (WIP): Tyler McClary, Mission Engineering, and Brandon Pehrson, Y‑12 Operations. This highly sought-after internship teaches the technical details of weapon systems and provides site interactions that provide a comprehensive picture of the Nuclear Security Enterprise. Following that education, the interns work on a project with enterprise and personal value.
Both are looking forward to being a member of the WIP Class of 2017. “I hope to use the knowledge I gain to better serve the needs of Pantex,” said McClary, who has been a Pantexan for almost five years and is a lead design engineer in Tooling & Tester Design.
Pehrson, a production specialist and Y‑12 employee for 11 years, said, “I want to learn more about the weapons parts and material function so I can understand impacts of changes. I also want to become an expert in the weapons field.”
Colby Yeary and Eva Irwin of Program Integration, the CNS contacts for the program, realize there are many advantages for having Pantex and Y‑12 representatives participate.
Yeary said, “Our representatives provide a perspective from two key production agencies in the Nuclear Security Enterprise. Tyler and Brandon’s perspectives, and those of past participants, offer production agency considerations that can be overlooked in important nuclear weapon product realization activities.”
Tyler McClary (left) shares with Colby Yeary about participating in the WIP.
There are many benefits to the rigorous program. The first six months includes classroom work with site visits and research assignments. During the final five months, participants are embedded in various organizations across Sandia to work on specific projects.
“The interns are considered high potential and are able to develop and learn about the enterprise in an accelerated manner,” Yeary said. “It took me the better part of a decade to get the exposure and knowledge they will receive in less than a year.”
HaliAnne Crawford and Aaron Lee, the CNS representatives in the WIP Class of 2016B, offered advice to McClary and Pehrson. (During 2016, WIP had two classes.)
“No matter how daunting the next 11 months seem,” Lee said, “just jump in with both feet first as soon as possible. You have a limited time to learn as much as you can about a topic that is truly vast. Don’t waste a moment of the next 11 months because it will fly by.”
Crawford echoed Lee’s sentiment. “My advice is to get involved with the program, both inside and outside the classroom. Don’t be a passive participant. You will be learning from some of the greatest minds in our industry; ask questions and don’t be afraid to think outside the box.
“You will find that your classmates are some of the most brilliant individuals you will ever have the pleasure of working with,” Crawford said. “Get to know them, learn from their experiences and leverage their knowledge and abilities whenever possible. This year will be one of the best of your life. Enjoy every single second of it.”
Lee agreed: “Listen to your classmates. They will have just as much to teach you as the instructors do. Members of my class represented almost every other site within the NSE as well as NNSA and the military. They had knowledge and perspectives on certain topics that were completely different from my own due to their own different experiences. Everyone brought unique experiences to the program and had a lot of knowledge to share with the class.”
After the internship, WIP participants return to their respective sites to continue their leadership journeys. Yeary said, “The WIP prepares today’s workforce as tomorrow’s leaders by rapidly providing a holistic, yet reasonably detailed view of the nuclear weapons business. The program helps candidates connect dots to see the ‘big picture’ — an important attribute of senior leadership.”
For two women who represented Pantex and Y‑12 at the U.S. Women in Nuclear national conference in July, the organization lives up to its acronym — WIN — by offering win‑win benefits of professional development and networking.
Megan Houchin of Y‑12 and Evalita Perez-Bobb of Pantex participated in the national 2016 conference, “U.S. WIN: Building on the Promise of Nuclear Energy,” held in Charlotte, North Carolina. Houchin, whose job title is Lean Six Sigma Black Belt, is the president of the Oak Ridge WIN chapter. Perez‑Bobb, an electrical engineer who joined Pantex a year ago, is nearly as new as the recently formed Amarillo Pantex WIN Chapter, which is about eight months old.
Y‑12’s Megan Houchin, right, enjoys a Women in Nuclear networking event at the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte, North Carolina. With her is Julie Ezold of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
U.S. WIN includes chapters from across the country, comprised of 8,000 women (and men) who work in nuclear and radiation‑related fields. The national organization is affiliated with WIN‑Global, an international organization in 100 countries.
“We do a lot of professional development. We call it womentoring,” Houchin said. “Most people think WIN is for nuclear engineers, but it’s not. It’s for anyone in the nuclear industry — which is everyone at Consolidated Nuclear Security.”
After joining Pantex about a year ago as an electrical engineer, Perez‑Bobb wondered if the organization offered peer networking like she experienced serving in the Navy. She was glad to hear that Pantex employees were establishing a WIN chapter.
Perez‑Bobb attended the conference as a last‑minute substitute and wasn’t sure what to expect. Walking into a panel discussion, she immediately recognized a familiar face and a connection to her naval service. Retired U.S. Navy Admiral Robert Willard, now president and CEO of the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations, was commanding officer of the USS Abraham Lincoln when she served on the aircraft carrier.
She said it was also amazing to see that two of the four panel speakers were women: Lynn Good, CEO of Duke Energy Corp., and Maria Korsnick, CEO of Nuclear Energy Institute.
“The women there were great, so inspirational. They were presidents, CEOs or top national experts in the nuclear energy field. I was grateful for being given the chance to socialize with so many women nuclear professionals in one place,” Perez-Bobb said.
Houchin had a similar experience as she chatted with a woman seated next to her at the lunch table, the president of one of the Savannah River Site operations.
Closer to home, the chapters meet monthly and often host guest speakers. Recent professional development topics include Facilitation 101 and networking. The chapters also take part in community outreach, such as Introduce a Girl to Engineering, and members speak at schools.
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.”