Nuke Mexico

What better way to spend a beautiful Sunday morning than listening to a talk about plutonium pits, radioactive leaks, and the possibilities of an accidental, nuclear start to World War III?

1995 aerial TA-3 south to north

You would never guess that surrounding this complex devoted to nuclear arms is some of the most striking scenery in northern New Mexico.

Welcome to New Mexico, where since World War II the state has been at least partially defined by its historical and ongoing role in bringing us nuclear weapons. Say Los Alamos, and most people (or am I being too optimistic?) can probably identify it as the birthplace of the atomic bomb. They might even know that the first A-bomb was successfully tested some several hundred miles to the south near Alamagordo (they’re less likely to know about the Downwinders, the New Mexicans exposed to fallout from the blast, who are still seeking compensation for their related health ills). But outside of New Mexico, I doubt few people keep tabs on the ongoing nuclear arms development that takes place at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) and, to a lesser extent, at Sandia, a national lab in Albuquerque. And outsiders probably don’t have the same concern about the still-closed Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in Carlsbad, which suffered two accidents in 2014, but which could, when it’s reopened, take on nuclear waste from around the United States and perhaps other countries as well.

Greg Mello of the Los Alamos Study Group (LASG) knows all about New Mexico’s nuclear history and LANL and WIPP and the billions of dollars the government plans to spend over the next few decades to modernize its nuclear weapons—with the most important work going on at LANL. A co-founder of LASG, Mello drew a sizable crowd into a Santa Fe book store today for a talk titled “Crawl Out Through the Fallout: LANL and the Future of Santa Fe.” His talk went beyond Santa Fe to look at what he would consider, I think, one of our state’s big lies: that the New Mexico economy needs both national laboratories to survive. Our elected officials in Congress seem to think so, and none of them have called for slowing down or reversing the push to build more and more advanced nuclear arms. Mello and some in the audience singled out Senator Tom Udall, considered a liberal on most issues, for wrongly supporting the labs at all costs.

I had bought the economic-necessity argument for the labs, and even Mello’s own numbers show that some people would be hurt if LANL disappeared. About 1/3 of its approximately 10,000 employees don’t have college degrees. Could they get jobs with the same security and benefits if the lab closed? And given the past actions and current ambitions of Russia and China, some would argue that the United States would be foolish to stop investing in its nuclear arsenal. LANL is at the heart of that effort, helping to design and build weapons hundreds of times more powerful than the first atomic bombs.

But Mello argued that overall, since the end of World War II, the billions of dollars spent at LANL have not helped Santa Fe or New Mexico. That money and the research done at the labs have not kept the state from staying at or falling to the bottom of the barrel when it comes to important economic indicators. Together the labs employ only 2 percent of the state’s workforce, and although the PhD researchers are well paid, the money does not necessarily benefit the state as a whole. And while Mello did not say much about this, the people who have benefited include execs at Bechtel and other members of the public-private consortium that runs the lab (the folks who got the blame for the WIPP accidents and were recently cited for other safety violations. But hey, what are a few accidents if we can cut corners and make more money?).


LANL produces most of the country’s plutonium pits, the “triggers” in today’s thermonuclear weapons.

In an era of what Mello called “continuous war,” he and LASG are working for what many might think is a pipe dream: nuclear disarmament. But the group is also concerned about environmental safety—particularly as it relates to nuclear waste—social justice, and economic sustainability. Mello called on the audience to get involved, especially by letting elected officials know that they oppose the growing efforts at LANL to expand our nuclear arsenal. Speak out, he said, against the “myth of defense,” that we can spend our way to greater security. (To a degree, Mello suggested, the government sees our defense spending as part of overall U.S. efforts at deterrence, an attempt to show potential foes we’ll go to any length to ensure military dominance and control “all aspects of the escalatory ladder.”) Realize, Mello said,  that companies like Bechtel lobby Congress to pursue policies that fatten their bottom lines, while putting us at risk of an arms race without end and exposure to environmental hazards.

The New START nuclear arms agreement with Russia runs out in 2021. What will follow? We don’t know. I’m sure if Mello has his way, the United States will end its efforts to build more powerful and stealthy nuclear cruise missiles, which are helping to fuel the new arms race. I left the talk thinking that nuclear disarmament is a great idea, but are the other members of the “club” going to buy it?

Regardless of what happens in Washington, I think most people here would agree that it’s a little scary living so close to a place where plutonium is prepared to kill perhaps millions of people, and waste products of all kinds sit in heaps and leach into our water. Others believe, as Mello does, that it’s also unethical.

We live in a beautiful place, but the spectre of a nuclear accident—or the thought that we are a very juicy target if a nuclear attack ever came—is not a comforting one.

And how was your Sunday morning?