With the United States probing the possibility of thawing the social freeze from the COVID-19 pandemic, the Department of Energy’s Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore national laboratories plan to start slowly ramping up on-site work this month.

The labs, run by DoE’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), manage ongoing nuclear weapon refurbishments planned to keep the U.S. arsenal war-ready through the middle of the century, and beyond.

Los Alamos for now remains in a mission-critical operations posture, limiting on-site work to what Director Thomas Mason in late March called “key national security activities.”

Under that posture, more employees than not of the New Mexico’s facility’s workforce of about 12,700 are either staying at home or telecommuting.

Now, lab leadership plans to resume — either this week or next, a source said — some work that was interrupted by the shift from normal operations. 

A Los Alamos spokesperson would not comment Wednesday about the lab’s timeline for ramping up operations.

“As was the case for much of March, more than 80 percent of the Laboratory workforce continues to telework from offsite while nearly 20 percent are working on-site — including at PF-4 — to perform mission critical activities,” the Los Alamos spokesperson wrote in an email. 

PF-4 is the Plutonium Facility, where Los Alamos manufactures the fissile nuclear-weapon cores called pits. The agency is upgrading PF-4 to produce 10 war-reserve pits annually by 2024, ramping up to 30 annually by 2026. The effort includes installing extra equipment in the facility itself, and building support infrastructure such as parking accommodation.

“Since the outset of COVID-19, the laboratory has been managing and developing its operational posture in real time in coordination with the NNSA and following CDC guidance in order to meet the evolving challenges of protecting our staff, thwarting the spread of the virus and performing our essential national security work,” the Los Alamos spokesperson said.

Meanwhile, Lawrence Livermore in California aims to have 1,000 workers on-site by the end of the month, the younger of the two nuclear weapon design labs stated Wednesday on its website. The lab slowly started bringing people back last week, when it transitioned out of the minimum safe operations posture it adopted on March 23.

The next people Livermore wants to bring back on site are those working on “classified, office-based activities in support of priority weapons program activities, including support to the stockpile and modernization programs, along with critical support to the intelligence community,” according to Wednesday’s post. That would be followed by activities including “experimental work and part fabrication” and “high-priority construction projects.”

New Mexico-based Sandia National Laboratories, meanwhile, has no immediate plans to bring non-essential employees back to the labs, a spokesperson wrote Wednesday in an email. About 75% of our workforce will continue to telecommute.” Sandia has about 14,000 people working at its various locations, most of which are in the lab network’s main campus in Albuquerque. Most of the remainder are co-located with the Livermore lab in California.