Nuclear Testing and National Security
An ice cube-sized projectile rockets at nearly 18,000 miles per hour down the narrow chamber of the massive 65-foot gas gun until it smashes into a small quarter-sized disk of plutonium—sparking a tremendous, but controlled blast. This explosive experiment, along with others, takes place at specially designed facilities at the Nevada National Security Site (NNSS), formerly known as the Nevada Test Site. This particular facility focuses on studying the behavior of plutonium and other elements in high-energy states, and was built and commissioned by BYU Mechanical Engineering grad Mark Martinez (BS ’86, MS ’91).
As of December 2017, Martinez has taken the helm as the site director of the NNSS, which is managed and operated by Mission Support and Test Services. Martinez serves a dual role as NNSS Site Director and MSTS President, where he will help manage the ~500 million dollar test site budget and oversee many experiments. “[The Nevada National Security Site] is a place where the nation can do high consequence, high-risk experiments to make sure that the nation remains secure. . . . It’s a place that really has changed the world as we know it today.”
Responsible for maintaining the United States’ nuclear stockpile, scientists and engineers at the NNSS work together to better understand how plutonium in nuclear warheads behaves by fielding hazardous and high-consequence experiments. Martinez, explains, “We have existing weapons, and [we make] sure that they’re still viable and perform as they were intended.”
Engineers such as Martinez excavate holes underground, build barriers to safely contain experiment explosions, and then execute the experiments. Despite the volatile nature of the experiments, Martinez assures, “The employees at the NNSS are extremely talented and smart, and work to the highest safety standards. . . .We have processes and procedures to ensure that nothing untoward happens.”
Despite the risk and the challenges of working in isolated southern Nevada, Martinez says it is all worth it. “Doing the work that helps our national security is really what motivates me and makes my job interesting,” Martinez explains. “Everything that goes on at the [NNSS] truly makes a difference to our national security.”
Although Martinez didn’t work with nuclear weapons during his time at school, he still relies on what he learned from his time at BYU. “My BYU Mechanical Engineering background prepared me quite nicely for my career. The test and instrumentation classes we had, for example, made me that much more effective in fielding experiments.” Perhaps even more importantly, Martinez left BYU with a strong desire to give back to his community. He says, “I think a real advantage BYU provides is that its primary focus is on educating the next generation to learn and go forth to serve.”
While Martinez runs high-consequence nuclear experiments by day, he also finds time to serve. Martinez says, “Serving on the school board was pretty interesting. . . . It was actually fun! My whole mantra was, ‘You got to look out for the average kid’. [To] make sure that we’re teaching them to read in particular, because if they can read, they can learn.” Through serving as a Bishop, high school football referee, and school board member, Martinez has committed much of his spare time to helping local youth. “It’s been really fun to get out there with the youth and see the great things they can do and the differences I can make in their lives.”