By KAY MATTHEWS
Several weeks ago I had dinner with a norteño artist and activist, who I’ll call Tomás, a native of the Española Valley whose large extended family still lives in the various valley communities. The conversation turned to Los Alamos National Laboratory. He told me a story about when he briefly worked at LANL as a young man, which I’ll paraphrase: “I didn’t last very long when I found out about the work ethic, or the lack there of. I’d do whatever work I was supposed to be doing that day and when I was done I’d go to my boss and ask what I should do next and he’d tell me ‘nothing.’ So I’d sit around, sometimes all afternoon, until it was time to go home.”
The conversation continued about the changing mission at LANL—from Research and Development to plutonium pit production—that many at the table regarded as another insidious step towards nuclear annihilation literally in our backyard. But one person also spoke about the fact that economically LANL is the only thing going in the valley and keeps many people employed and off the welfare rolls.
Tomás challenged that thinking immediately with a long description of what LANL employment really looks like: the abandonment of self-sufficiency, massive material consumption, paved over gardens, lack of a work ethic (citing his own experience as a common occurrence at the Lab), and immoral complicity in the production of nuclear weapons.
Tomás’s position that LANL is not the savior it’s made out to be by the bureaucrats who run it and the politicians who cheerlead it is born out by a long list of dismal statistics regarding the Española Valley and the state: Rio Arriba County leads the nation in per capita deaths from both heroin and prescription drug overdoses; 23.2 percent of Rio Arriba citizens live in poverty; the state fell from 37th in per capita personal income in 1959 to 44th in 2011; and we rank worst of all the states in the well-being of children. Now the city itself has a new distinction to add to the list: the Federal Bureau of Investigation says that Española is the most dangerous city in the state. According to a security company called Home Security Shield, hired by the FBI to compile the statistics, the citizens of Española have a one in nine chance of being a victim of crime (Gallup comes in at number two, Artesia three, Farmington four, Taos five, and Albuquerque number eight).
Whether you’re a traditionalist, like Tomás, or someone who deals with the social problems extant in the valley on a daily basis, the changes that are looming at LANL portend even more bureaucratic dysfunction, environmental contamination, and potential worker/public exposure to radiation.
According to an article in Global Zero, global governments will spend $1 trillion over the next 10 years on nuclear weapons. The nine countries with nuclear weapons spent a record $100 billion on their nuclear programs in 2011. This is after President Obama promised to reduce the world’s nuclear arsenal as one of his campaign promises in 2008.
The New Mexico congressional delegation continues to push production of the B61 nuclear bomb, part of its “Life Extensions Program” that gives old weapons nuclear capability. The B61 was supposed to be a less expensive alternative to the building of the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility (CMRR-NF), where plutonium pits for nuclear warheads would be built. Construction of CMRR-NF was “deferred” for five years because of its enormous cost. This year the cost of refurbishing the B61 has nearly doubled, from $3.8 billion to estimates ranging from $7 billion to $10 billion. According to the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), the agency that oversees the nation’s nuclear facilities, these increased costs are due to “expensive technological additions.” In a Senate Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee hearing Senator Diane Feinstein said that with this increased cost the B61 life extension program has erased any savings on the CMRR-NF. Now the deadline for a First Production Unit on the life-extended B61 has been pushed back two years, to 2019, due to budget and schedule issues.
This relentless push for “modernization” continues to funnel money into projects like the B61 and the W78/W88 weapons while funding for non-proliferation work and clean-up of contaminated sites continues to decline. Stephanie Hiller wrote in her La Jicarita article “Nuclear Shenanigans Block Disarmament Progress,” “These terms and phrases – modernization of the aging stockpile, preventing risks to the stockpile, ensuring a safe, reliable, and secure deterrent – are a routine part of the nuclear liturgy, endowing the discussion with allusions to august, indisputable principles that no one really understands but which have the additional feature of precluding argument. What precisely is the risk to the stockpile if we don’t modernize it immediately? What can be more meaningless than a ‘safe’ nuclear weapon?”
At the end of July, the Center for Public Integrity revealed that LANL had fired James Doyle, its non-proliferation specialist. Doyle is the author of a study, Why Eliminate Nuclear Weapons?, which LANL retroactively classified, although Doyle wrote it as a personal project and it remains available on the Nuclear Watch New Mexico website and other internet sites. In an October 9 press release, Nuclear Watch stated that Doyle’s firing “was widely viewed as a political move to punish an internal voice of nuclear weapons abolition.” In the report Doyle makes the argument for limiting this country’s nuclear stockpile as a first step towards global disarmament.
The press release announced a new collaborative project between Doyle and Nuclear Watch to “assess and augment the nonproliferation programs of the National Nuclear Security administration. Our ultimate goal is to redirect the focus of three national security labs from wasteful nuclear weapons research and production programs to expanded research and development of the monitoring and verification technologies needed for global abolition.” Nonproliferation programs are slated for a 21 percent cut in FY 2015, and nuclear weapons dismantlements will be cut by 45 percent.
Now there’s something you’d think Udall and Lujan and Heinrich would get behind instead of the B61 bomb: “the monitoring and verification technologies needed for global abolition.” If they’re so convinced, despite all evidence to the contrary, that the well being of our state—particularly el norte—is so dependent on the federal trough and the “trickle-down economics” trope, then let’s keep the money rolling in for nonproliferation.