Los Alamos National Laboratory: A Plague on Your House

Commentary by KAY MATTHEWS


Scholars Joseph Masco and Jake Kosek wrote about the dysfunctional “culture” of Los Alamos National Laboratory in the mid 2000s: Masco about Lab scientists who transform the bomb into a technoaesthetic concept by “self-consciously devot[ing] their careers to engineering the bomb so that it will never actually be used as a bomb” (The Nuclear Borderlands: The Manhattan Project in Post-Cold War New Mexico); and Kosek, about the Española Valley workers dependent upon the Lab for employment, one of whom compares the Lab to a “bad boyfriend you enter into [a relationship with] it seeing all the possibilities, but then it doesn’t live up to your expectations and even though you know it’s bad, it gives you something, you can’t get out, you can’t see another way. . . . You think it’s better than nothing and maybe it is. . . . What’s worse is that he can never tell the truth and he always has an excuse, he’s never wrong, never responsible, sometimes cute, ultimately painful” (Understories: The Political Life of Forests in Northern New Mexico). The scientists cultivate an arrogance that from its inception has insulated LANL from local and federal oversight and has led to human abuse, environmental catastrophe, and financial profligacy. The workers have been relegated to second-class citizens, part of the 99 percent who have essentially been colonized by the corporate consortium that runs the for-profit Lab.

Masco and Kosek based their theoretical work on the nature of this beast through extensive ethnographic study in northern New Mexico. What they learned are the stories I hear daily from my friends and neighbors who work there. One extended family has members who have worked as a construction foreman, an electrician, a maintenance worker, a technician, and security guard. What is most egregious about their stories is the waste, both in human potential and resource use. The technician talks about going to work and sitting in a room where the high point of his day is lunch: otherwise, he tries to fill his time with busy work because his bosses don’t give him anything meaningful to do. When he tries to initiate work they urge him to slow down, to milk the project as long as possible. The construction foreman talks about procurement dollars and how to keep them flowing whether the product is used, abused, or abandoned. The products include lumber, water tanks, small machinery, computers, trailer vans, and yes, even some backhoes, that get thrown into the garbage heap if they’re not used before the next year’s procurement tally is made so that funding doesn’t decrease. He talks about employees and supervisors who take lumber, computers, small machinery, and yes, even a one-ton magnet-lifting unit with them to become part of their private inventory. And he talks about the administration that does nothing about any of it.

As a matter of fact, Glenn Walp wrote an entire book about this waste, Implosion at Los Alamos: How Crime, Corruption and Cover-Ups Jeopardize America’s Nuclear Weapons Secrets. Walp, former Pennsylvania State Police Commissioner, was hired in 2002 to head the Office of Security Inquiries at LANL after the Wen Ho Lee scandal, the downloading of classified weapons information, the loss of hard drives containing classified information, and other personnel security breaches. He was fired later that same year after he documented what my neighbors, and most folks inside the Lab, already knew: LANL “lost” millions of dollars of equipment every year because the Office of Security Inquiries never reported most of these thefts because the administration didn’t want them reported.

Why? As Chuck Montaño explains it, the administrators at the Lab are terrified of losing their funding, so there is method to their madness: they can’t allow themselves to be in a position where they might be liable for anything and they have to do everything they can possibly do to prevent bad PR. No oversight and no notoriety means no diminishing returns. Montaño, who is well known for his efforts to help organize LANL workers during the layoffs in the mid 1990s, worked in audits and investigations there. He spent nine months in “cubicle isolation” in 2002-3, a victim of retaliation for trying to investigate procurement violations at the Lab.

Because of its own fears the Lab administration has become a master at instilling fear not only in its employees but in our congressional delegation and all of northern New Mexico. Montaño believes the Lab used the threat of RIFs—Reduction in Force—in 1995 and 1996 as scare tactics to soften everyone up for shifting plutonium pit production from Rocky Flats in Colorado, which became a Super Fund site, to Los Alamos, which was primarily a Research and Development facility. The Lab has no long-term vested interest in northern New Mexico or the state. Production decisions are made by the Department of Energy at the national level to divide up the “necessary” weapons work among the nuclear facilities across the country. And the labor force that is dependent upon the jobs they provide can’t think about the long-term consequences of pit production and continued weapons development because their focus is on their economic needs. Their tolerance for risk is much higher as employees. In the book Atomic Spaces: Living on the Manhattan Project, author Peter Bacon Hales talks about how the DOE purposely looked at potential “tolerance for risk” communities when deciding where to develop its nuclear facilities.

Fast forward to 2012. LANL says it must lay off between 400 and 800 employees because of proposed 2013 budget cuts and the hold on funding for the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility (CMRR) for five years. When Bechtel and the University of California corporate consortium took over management of LANL as Los Alamos National Security (LANS) in 2006, around 400 jobs were cut to make way for corporate costs. Now the Lab claims that there will be a $300 million shortfall, but $70 million of that is due to the end of one-time economic stimulus funding for clean-up that it had already planned for with the termination of 150 jobs. Projected funding for 2013 actually only brings it back to the then record-breaking level of 2010. In a press release from Nuclear Watch the group asks, “According to the Lab’s own data LANL employed a total of 14,610 people in 2010. So why does LANS now need to drop 400-800 employees from its current documented workforce of 11,782, when virtually the same amount of funding employed far more people in 2010?”


As for the CMRR Nuclear Facility, Republican Heather Wilson, who is running for the U.S. Senate, claims that Los Alamos will lose 1,000 jobs for 10 years. She’s no one if not LANL head cheerleader Pete Domenici’s darling. In actuality, according to the final environmental impact statement for CMRR, the project would create NO new permanent jobs because it would relocate existing jobs from older facilities. And the estimated 420 temporary construction jobs “would have little or no noticeable impact on the socioeconomic conditions” of the Los Alamos, Santa Fe, Rio Arriba, and Taos Counties.


Perhaps the real explanation for the layoffs is to once again make up for new for-profit costs. LANS receives more money from the federal government, with a smaller work force, than the University of California ever did. And despite what they want us to believe, the majority of this funding still goes to building bombs. Yet enforcing the Consent Order between the state and the Lab that governs cleanup could create thousands of jobs. The Lab’s own data suggests that cleanup of the Lab’s biggest waste dump, Area G, could provide 108 million worker hours at a labor cost of $13.5 billion to excavate the radioactive, hazardous, and toxic waste from the pits, trenches, and shafts at the site. This translates to 1,730 jobs for 30 years at $125 per hour.

As Jake Kosek writes in his book, any talk of employment must be contexualized in vital statistics, and, more importantly, relationally: “Los Alamos sits on a hill with a population that is over 90 percent white, in [one of the] wealthiest count[ies] in the country (surrounded by four counties that are over 70 percent non-white), with a population that is almost fully insured, and with almost no violent crime. . . . Only 15 percent of neighboring Rio Arriba County residents over twenty-five have bachelors’ degrees or higher, and the drop-out rate is almost 12 percent for those who start high school. In contrast, Los Alamos has the highest number of Ph.D.s per capita of any city in the world and the best-funded school system in the state: almost 90 percent who graduate from high school there go on to a four-year college; the dropout rate in Los Alamos is well under 1 percent. . . . The per capita income in Rio Arriba . . . is just a little over $16,000 annually; in Los Alamos, the average salary of someone working at the Lab is over $86,000. Rio Arriba has an unemployment level of almost 26 percent, while Los Alamos has an unemployment rate of 2 percent. . . .” New Mexico is now 43rd in the nation with regard to per capita income, down 6 percent from 1959. In the 1995 RIFs Hispanos were laid off at twice the rate of Anglos yet represented only 27 percent of the workforce. Kosek cites Franz Fanon: “ . . . for Fanon racism endowed colonialism with cohesion, attributing poverty and lack of education to a natural state rather than to injustice, thus enabling the colonialist to espouse Western ideas of civilization and democracy while violently exploiting native workers. For Fanon, colonialism was inseparable from production and internalization of racial inferiority, which were justified and reproduced by dehumanizing economic conditions that served as a pretext for continued exploitation.”

Chuck Montaño is writing a book, too. Its focus is the common thread of arrogance of Lab management and the revolving-door culture among LANL, the DOE, the University of California, and Bechtel that prevents accountability. The name of the chapter that deals with the changeover from the non-profit management of the University to for-profit management of the consortium is “Lipstick on a Pig”: “We went from bad to worse with the Bechtel led management.” He knows there is never going to be internal LANL accountability. Filing, and litigating, discrimination and grievance lawsuits costs workers too much, both financially and emotionally. Whistleblowers like Chuck and Joe Guitierrez are retaliated against. There have been suicides. The number of workers who have died from exposure to radioactive and toxic substances is a story unto itself. Activists like Manny Trujillo and members of Citizens for LANL Employee Rights, and watch dog groups like Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety, Nuclear Watch, the Los Alamos Study Group, Amigos Bravos, and TEWA Women United have slowly forced the Lab to deal with workers’ rights organizations, clean-up, and access. But the bombs are still being built, the canyons are still filled with toxins that pollute the watershed, and millions of dollars of taxpayer money is still wasted through mismanagement and outright fraud. And it is still the people of northern New Mexico who, like the woman with the bad boyfriend, have an “ultimately painful” relationship with this behemoth on the hill and bear the burden of its colonial culture.




  1. Alright – needed to read this. Not at all surprising. But this is the reality we need to be aware of, like so many dysfunctional and corrupt realities around us. Call a spade a spade – call colonialism colonialism.
    What year was Jake Kosek’s book published? Dropout rates are higher all around the state now, eh?

  2. Dear Kay —

    This is a terrific article that incisively captures many of the most important core truths about LANL and its relation to the region.

    Much about LANL is so difficult to know that it is effectively secret, including very basic information like how many people work there. It was clear, two or three years back, that even LANL Director Mike Anastasio did not know, and could not tell the NM legislature, how many people worked on site to within a 2,000 person margin of error.

    The employment figure quoted by Nuclear Watch of New Mexico — 14,610 — is too large by thousands of people, as the lab’s fact sheet from which this figure comes clearly explains. It includes not just employees and contractors but also students, part-timers, etc. It would be better characterized as the sum of all the people, students included, that appeared in the lab’s rolls at one time or another on the site in 2010.

    In 2009, the average salary and benefits of all LANS employees was $175,000. Kosek’s figure, possibly accurate at the time he wrote, is now much too low.

    These corrections only underscore the validity and importance of the points you make.

    Knowing that what LANL says is often (though not always) a self-serving lie does not necessarily lead us very far toward understanding what is true. The public health risk from chronic environmental contamination from LANL has been greatly exaggerated, for example. Contamination has become a kind of symbol for all that is unknown and repressed, even by watchdog groups, which face and must respond to the broader structural and cultural problems of our society.


    Greg Mello, Los Alamos Study Group

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