“Many” of the nearly 250 National Nuclear Security Administration employees confirmed to have caught COVID-19 are believed to have contracted the disease while teleworking, the head of the nuclear-weapons agency said Tuesday.

Although Administrator Lisa Gordon-Hagerty did not say how many of the agency’s confirmed cases involved transmissions outside of a nuclear-weapons site, each that did would potentially have prevented many more people from missing work while they quarantined and monitored themselves for symptoms.

The Department of Energy’s Nuclear Security Administration’s (NNSA) builds, maintains, and refurbishes U.S. nuclear weapons. The agency had as of last week confirmed a total of 247 cases of COVID-19 among federal employees and contractors across the civilian nuclear weapons enterprise. Of those, 129 were active, a jump of 34 compared with the prior week. 

With a workforce of about 50,000 nationwide, Gordon-Hagerty characterized that as a “minimal” rate of infection.

“Our numbers are quite low, in terms of COVID cases,” the NNSA boss said during a virtual meeting of the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board. Of the confirmed cases, one was fatal. Another 118 NNSA employees recovered from their bouts.

Most NNSA employees have been working remotely since mid-March, when the agency curtailed some of its usual operations to half the spread of the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus. 

However, those doing nuclear-weapons-production shift work at the Kansas City National Security Complex in Missouri, the Pantex Plant in Amarillo, Texas, and the Y-12  Pantex have all had to show up for work, despite the pandemic. Likewise, some people working on top-priority programs at the labs — such as the drive to upgrade facilities at Los Alamos needed to cast the fissile warhead cores called plutonium pits — have had to show up for work.

Gordon-Hagerty and fellow DoE Undersecretaries Paul Dabbar and Mark Menezes gathered in one room to speak over a video link to the federally chartered advisory committee, members of which tuned in from elsewhere. The DoE managers all appeared to maintain distance from one another during their presentations.

As she has throughout the pandemic, Gordon-Hagerty repeated that the NNSA has “flawlessly” performed its mission during the pandemic response, and that “we have not missed one of our milestones” for completing routine nuclear-weapons maintenance and deliveries to and from military services.

Yet more major modernization work looms on the horizon for the NNSA: minting the first productions units of the revamped W88 Alt-370 submarine-launched ballistic-missile warhead, and the B61-12 nuclear gravity bomb in 2021 and 2022, respectively; completing a critical design review to set the cost, schedule and initial design considerations for a new plutonium-pit plant at the Savannah River Site.

“We’re not out of the woods yet,” Gordon-Hagerty said.

Like Your Branding, Keep Your Branding

The Secretary of Energy Advisory Board was chartered to provide independent advice to the secretary of energy from a mixture of business leaders and former public servants. One of the big themes of Tuesday’s meeting was DoE’s brand, and how to burnish it for the public.

Nuclear weapons programs, famously born secret, don’t necessarily seek the spotlight.

“Most Americans won’t even know what we do,” Gordon-Hagerty told the board.

Still, Gordon-Hagerty touted the agency’s “one-NNSA initiative,” published in December 2018. Equal parts slogan and management philosophy, the initiative called on the agency’s eight sometimes-competitive sites to “work with a single purpose as … through more effective teaming and improved mission integration.”

Practically speaking, that might include keeping a lab director on message if she or he visits with congressional representatives, Gordon-Hagerty said Tuesday.

“I’m of the opinion that if a lab director wants to speak with his local congressman or senator, or he or she is on the Hill, I think that’s a wonderful thing,” Gordon-Hagerty said. “Never would we stop anyone from speaking to a congressman or a senator or anything like that, but we have an incredibly important mission [and it] will serve us better if we do it [with] an integrated approach.”

Still, there are limits to any top-downing NNSA is willing to do from headquarters.

“While we are one NNSA, we also have eight very unique brands,” Gordon-Hagerty said, referring to NNSA labs, production sites, and the Nevada test site. “And we are absolutely wedded to ensuring that they retain that unique signature and brand that is their own.”