LANL Disconnect: The Moral Versus the Economic Imperative

By KAY MATTHEWS

Scenario One:

On July 16 members of the Regional Coalition of LANL Communities (see La Jicarita, May 5 guest editorial) and other folks from the business community traveled to Washington D.C. to lobby for “retaining the $2.25 billion LANL budget.” At the July 17 meeting of the Regional Coalition in Española, Reverend Holly Beaumont of Santa Fe stood up and asked what the group’s position was on the Chemistry and Metallurgy Replacement Research nuclear facility (CMRR) and if it would be lobbying to reinstate the funding that was recently put on hold. The coalition’s moderator quickly answered that the group did not have a position on the CMRR. Newly elected coalition chair, Santa Fe Mayor David Coss, added that the group lobbied for clean-up and was moving on to “economic development.” He didn’t address what that economic development entails.

Scenario Two:

On July 16 a group of citizens began the Los Alamos Hunger Strike to protest LANL’s current bomb making mission and replace it with “Things that are Good for Us.” Some of the protestors have pledged to continue the fast until Nagasaki Day, August 9.

That these two scenarios took place on the same day isn’t ironic, it’s emblematic of the disconnect that makes LANL such a difficult case. In theory, most folks agree that the Cold War has ended and it’s time to eliminate, or at the very least, reduce this nation’s nuclear arsenal. There’s equivocation, of course, on what constitutes a “reliable stockpile” of nuclear weapons, which the powers that be will never give up, and whether more plutonium pits, produced at LANL, are really needed to maintain this stockpile. But without LANL, and the 60 percent of its funding that goes towards the production of nuclear weapons (as opposed 0.09 percent of its 2013 budget designated for green energy development and 10.6 percent for clean-up) the people of northern New Mexico are thrown out of work. That this work is largely nonprofessional without opportunity for advancement, that it has not raised the socioeconomic status of dependent communities, that it has contaminated an entire generation of workers, ruining their health or killing them, that it has contaminated our water, air, and forest resources, and that it has made us complicit in what many believe is a morally reprehensible activity, is only a subplot in the absolutist belief that without LANL we are screwed.

Even without LANL head cheerleader Pete Domenici the New Mexico Congressional delegation buys into this belief. Our governor certainly buys into it. One of the people who went on the lobbying trip to D.C. was Susana Martinez’s chief of staff Keith Gardner. The other usual suspects included the directors of the Los Alamos and Santa Fe Chambers of Commerce, an Española city council woman, and a board member of Christus St. Vincent Hospital. Despite the Regional Coalition of Counties’ claim that they weren’t lobbying for “reconsideration” of funding for the CMRR facility, you can bet they weren’t suggesting that the 60 percent of the $2.25 billion LANL budget that funds nuclear weapons be “reconsidered.”

As I addressed in my La Jicarita article, “The Case for Shutting LANL Down,”, some of the scientists who worked there believe “that LANL is so damaged by 65 years of ingrained, incestuous relationships with DOE [Department of Energy] and a few other government funding agencies that it cannot be repaired, or ‘regenerated’ ”.  What about the non-scientific workforce, the highly skilled technicians, engineers, construction workers, maintenance people, truck drivers, heavy equipment operators, etc.? Do they believe that LANL is so damaged—and so damaging—that it can’t be “regenerated”? I’ve recently been working with Peter Malmgren on a book of the interviews he conducted with LANL workers in 2000 as part of his “Los Alamos Revisited” oral history project (La Jicarita News February 2010 and August 2010). Peter ended each of the 150 interviews with the same question, “If you had to do it over again, would you have followed the same path that led you to Los Alamos?”  Those who came through the experience with their health relatively intact, answered in the affirmative. They were grateful for a job and the security that job provided. Those who were sick answered in the negative: the price was too high. Some expressed their negativity in moral terms. This is Ben Maestas, a weapons specialist: “I felt a little guilty, and yet I felt a lot of pride at the same time. I got to meet the national leaders of the time. It was state-of-the-art and everybody wanted to know what the bomb was all about. I was pretty impressed with all of it. Later on, I started thinking, God, this is a horrible thing I’m doing here.”

Alaric Balibrera, who initiated the Los Alamos Hunger Strike, certainly sees the issue as a moral one. The son of the former film documentarian at LANL, he went to school in Los Alamos from kindergarten through high school, attended UCLA, and now works as a filmmaker and producer in Santa Fe. I saw him briefly at his home, and he told me, “We can’t afford a disconnect between science and morality. We’re running out of time.”

Hunger striker Alaric Balibrera in Los Alamos. Photo courtesy of Alaric Balibrera

Unlike the disillusioned LANL scientists, Balibrera believes that LANL’s “brilliant minds can provide the heath, safety, security, and freedom from want” for everyone. He repeatedly told me his intention is to not “create an us versus them environment. That already exists. What I want to create is we—the possibility that LANL can be an inspiring place that brings hope and empowerment back to people.”

He is prepared to continue his hunger strike until he meets with LANL director Charles McMillan to have a discussion about mission change at the Lab and together “draft a Vision of Possibilities: how LANL can progressively transform all its life-injurious programs to life-sustaining programs.” Other demands include permanent cancellation of the CMRR nuclear facility; compliance with the New Mexico Environment Department Consent Order of 2005 that requires closure of Technical Area G; and comprehensive compensation for sick workers.

Balibrera has been joined in the hunger strike by folks like Ellie Voutselas, 75, a retired librarian and member of Pax Christi, and Marcus Page-Collonge of Trinity Nuclear Abolition, who pledged a seven-day strike, and Pamela Gilchrist and Mark Koenig, who are committed to a 21 day strike.

Beginning on August 3, NukeFreeNow and Occupy are presenting a conference, film series, and other events in Santa Fe and Los Alamos to mark the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the disasters at Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and Fukushima. Of particular interest to the discussion of LANL’s economic imperative is Jeff Dumas, Professor of Political Economy and the Macroeconomics of Military Spending, University of Texas, who will be speaking on Saturday, August 4 at the Center for Contemporary Arts, 1050 Old Pecos Trail, from 3 to 4 pm. Professor Dumas worked in the past with Concerned Citizens of Nuclear Safety (CCNS), and according to CCNS director Joni Arends, CCNS and Nuclear Watch New Mexico are working with Professor Dumas on funding to do a White Paper on economic conversion at LANL.

On Sunday, August 5 there will be a rally to commemorate the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima at Ashley Pond in Los Alamos with music, speakers, and a peace march led by Pax Christi. On Monday, August 6 there will be a full day of non-violent direct action organized by NukeFreeNow and Occupy.

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