• Martin Owens
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  • Martin Owens: Nuclear energy facility expert is here to build

    Steady leader leans into safety culture

    "I'm an explorer and not concerned about new environments, not afraid to leave what I know. I got that from my dad. I adapt fast and am a quick study."

    Large construction projects can take decades to build, from design to completion. Nuclear energy facility projects take even longer with a slew of extra safety and security steps required, and sometimes they don't ever get built. Martin Owens, senior director of the Project Execution Office, has held "dream jobs" in nuclear energy construction in the past, but he says he left all that to come to Los Alamos to "actually build something."

    But that's not all. Martin says his entire Labwide portfolio amounts to 600-plus projects totaling more than $1 billion.

    "Working with Martin for the last 18 months, I appreciate that he brings a positive and optimistic outlook in our daily execution of capital projects," says Russ Milam, project management officer for Science & Technology Operations. "His management style is refreshing and rare in the engineering and construction industry." 

    0914 Lab Character Martin Owens Tlw

    After 30 years in global engineering, procurement and construction of nuclear energy projects, Martin has found a good fit with the current mission demand at Los Alamos.

    "I like that my position at the Lab serves a mission that supports the country," Martin says. "Here, you get a budget and it's on us to go deliver the project — the goal is clear. We're not doing development, competing for projects, or starting and stopping. There are challenges, but the mission and work are otherwise clear."

    "In the high-stress world of project execution, Martin is the calm, steady captain," said Ric Rodarte, project management officer for Sigma. "Martin exudes a peaceful energy while he manages a large portfolio of projects and actively pursues innovative solutions. I truly appreciate working under Martin because he has an amazing wealth of knowledge and experience and is supportive of continuous improvement."

    0914 Lab Character Martin Owens Motor Replacement
    Several people recently traveled to Birr, Switzerland, to check on the progress of a new copper-wound steel rotor that will bring the Lab's pulse generator at the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory back online. From left, Benjamin Brindle (LANL consultant), Ross McDonald (MPA-MAGLAB), Raeanne Clabeaux (ES-SPD), Martin Owens (PEO), Russ Milam (PEO), Peter Warburton (LANL consultant), John Bordelon (STR) and Brian Hingst (LANL contractor).

    From naval submarines to the high desert

    With the construction boom at the Lab, Martin has been hiring for a variety of positions. When he asks applicants why they want to work here, he hears the same reason he was interested — building things.

    "I was lucky to get 23 years of actual building on submarines with BWXT, all within the razor wire, top-secret classified stuff," he says. "I thought the commercial nuclear world would be producing more than the Navy, but I found out in 2007 that no one had built a commercial power plant since 1981 or '82. At LANL, we're not building toasters; we're building things that matter — state-of-the-art science facilities — that's satisfying."

    At BWXT one of his projects was a prototype for the Seawolf submarine. "It's one of the baddest-ass submarines out there," Martin says. "No expense was spared for it to be the fastest, quietest submarine. I had early responsibility to develop and build essentially a modular reactor that goes in a ship."

    He also worked on the first Virginia-class submarine (nuclear-powered cruise missile fast-attack submarines in service with the U.S. Navy). Martin served as project director for new nuclear and solar projects with the French AREVA government group and with GE Hitachi on a small modular nuclear reactor program.

    During an environmental siting study for commercial nuclear power plants in Saudi Arabia, Martin drew a comparison to the landscape of canyons and cliffs he's come to love in Los Alamos. "While looking for sites and doing environmental assessments, we were at these little farms getting samples of camel's milk and dates — it was wild," he says. "I had all these Saudis on my team, and I was flying by the seat of my pants. There's no instruction manual for that kind of work. The interesting thing was coming out here and realizing the terrain looked a lot like New Mexico."

    Raised for adventure

    Fun fact: Martin was born in England, and he emigrated to the U.S. at age 8. This unique childhood set him up to be the people person he is today.

    "I'm an explorer and not concerned about new environments, not afraid to leave what I know. I got that from my dad," Martin says of his Harvard and MIT biochemistry professor father. "I adapt fast and am a quick study."

    One more reason he jumped at the job opportunity in Los Alamos: his love for the mountains and outdoors. "I thought it was cool to come out West where the land opens up and you can see the horizon."

    He grew up playing soccer and still runs recreationally. He is a cross-country and downhill skier, but his primary sport is bicycling.

    Martin has raced on road, mountain and cyclocross bikes, and has competed in triathlons and duathlons. "I was pretty serious about cycling. I tried to qualify in the duathlon for my age group at the World Athletic Championship, and I was close."

    But his greatest love is mountain biking where he can "get away from it all, hardly see anyone else, and it's just you against the terrain — there's something really nice about that."

    0914 Lab Character Martin Owens Maglab

    Martin expressed a desire for more oxygen and fewer rocks when riding in Los Alamos and noted respect for the cliff trails. "There's no warning signs or ropes! Nobody's telling you the rules, so you have to use your best judgement."

    The Project Execution Office also aligned capital projects with facility operations to create a shared fate. "We have synergy, and the same teams are working together consistently now. That's certainly been successful," he says.

    Martin, who joined the Lab in 2021, still splits his time between his home in North Carolina and Los Alamos. A photo of Gracie, his English cream golden retriever, is tacked to his office bulletin board. He visits his wife and four kids regularly between work demands.