The Woman in Charge of America's Nuclear Weapons - OZY | A Modern Media Company

The Woman in Charge of America's Nuclear Weapons

The Woman in Charge of America's Nuclear Weapons

By Farah Halime


Because she’s earned a place in the male-dominated arms-control field.

By Farah Halime

In a candid photograph taken last year during an exhibition of the country’s latest weapons stockpile on Capitol Hill, a crowd gathered around a replica of the B61 Model 12 nuclear bomb, a modification of one of the oldest weapons in the U.S. nuclear arsenal, which, after going into full production in 2020, will reportedly be the most expensive bomb ever made.

As senior officials of the National Nuclear Security Administration loomed over the model of the bomb describing its capacity to onlookers, the weaponry impresario hung in the background. Sprightly with a mane of thick gray hair, Jill Hruby, the newest president and director of one of America’s most powerful nuclear labs, Sandia, oversees the work being done in the life extension and testing of the top-secret electronic and mechanical innards of the sophisticated B61-12.

Given her domain over a weapon with a potential explosive force reportedly equivalent to 50,000 tons of TNT — more than three times as powerful as the U.S. atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima — 57-year-old Hruby is surprisingly unassuming. Last July, she became the first woman to be appointed director of a national security laboratory. Hruby has spent a formidable 33 years working for Sandia in Albuquerque, New Mexico, overseeing at different times cybersecurity, sustainable and renewable energy and homeland security. Her work is central and massive to the national science, technology and defense agendas: The lab, which is part of the Department of Energy (DOE), receives billions of dollars in funding from the government. In the 2016 fiscal year, Sandia received $2.9 billion from the DOE and other agencies. Weapons activities alone accounted for about $1.6 billion.

Though Sandia’s core mission has been the development of nuclear weapons since its founding in 1949, in the decades following it began to steer research and development into robotics, nanoscience and technology, biomedical engineering and more. With Hruby at the helm, researchers at Sandia conducted modeling and simulation to approve transportation of blood samples during the Ebola crisis in West Africa. Others have taken a first step toward creating a practical quantum computer, with the potential to handle difficult calculations instantaneously and much faster than regular computers. The labs develop “a lot of the underlying technologies … that are vital to the U.S. innovation system,” says Stephen Ezell, vice president for global innovation policy at Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a think tank focused on technology and public policy. “Their contributions can get lost in the background,” he notes, despite the fact that their decades of work helped spawn the internet, optical digital recording technology, maglev trains and proton accelerators.

So Hruby’s mission is a surprising one: She’s focused on transparency and good business — not the most natural accompaniment to nuclear bombs. “We’ve been around almost 70 years, and I am trying to work at modern communications,” she says. “It does have its tendency to get stale.” She is tasked with handling careful negotiations with Congress and private defense companies on the best way to deploy the budget. The lucrative management contract for operating Sandia — worth almost $3 billion — has been controlled by Lockheed Martin, the defense giant, since 1993 and is now being competed for again for the first time in two decades. Hruby will have to manage the high-profile nature of these negotiations while also ensuring their results don’t derail day-to-day operations. 

Born in Defiance, Ohio, Hruby completed mechanical engineering degrees at Purdue University and Berkeley and took her first job working on energy calculations at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. She soon made her way to Sandia, where she was promoted to management while on maternity leave with her second daughter in 1989. Within a month of her promotion to director last year, Hruby was already putting out fires. The lab’s contractor became entangled in a dispute for allegedly using federal funds to lobby congress and federal officials. Sandia Corporation, a wholly owned subsidiary of Lockheed Martin that operates Sandia National Laboratory, agreed to pay $4.79 million to settle the Justice Department allegations last August. (A spokesperson for Sandia said they agreed to the settlement “to put the matter behind us and to take action on what we learned and focus on our important national security mission.”) 

And of course, behind the theater of a D.C. contractor dispute, there was the quieter drama of Hruby’s identity as a woman in a male-dominated field. But speaking with a folksy charm, Hruby says she’s moved long past gender in the lab — it really gets stickier with people “outside the lab, so with Congress, with our broad set of customers and sponsors and lab directors, where they don’t know me as well.”

“There are always these folks who will subconsciously hold your gender against you,” says Allison Macfarlane, who directs the Center for International Science and Technology Policy at George Washington University and is the former chairwoman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. But Hruby’s ridden the tension: While a college student in the 1970s, she landed on a factory floor for a summer engineering project; as she wrote in a 2013 issue of the Profiles in Diversity Journal. “Things happened” that went as far as “sabotage” — important drawings went missing, screws that held together necessary machinery disappeared.

Hruby wrote that for most of her career she remained private, as a defense. “I willingly expressed my opinions, but not my feelings,” she says. “My behavior was driven by being different, since I was usually the only woman in my work group at my level and did not want to accentuate the differences. I did laundry, cooked, worried about daycare, kids and getting homework done — and I kept it to myself.” When it comes to some things, like the nuclear codes and daycare, transparency is not always the best policy.


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