The B61 Bomb or Nonproliferation: Which Do You Prefer?


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.



  1. The most important piece of this article and timely with election on the horizon is why Senators Udall and Heinrich support LANL at all. There are many other options for growth and sustainable development in the valle – ones that have never been given a chance. In almost 70 years LANL has not enhanced our state one iota – this is a fallacy. Just look at child poverty and our economy. Why are our Senators not fighting for subsidies of green industry & energy technologies? I’d like to hear an answer other than the pat “LANL hires a lot of people” before I cast my vote. I don’t care how many jobs making and maintaining weapons of mass destruction create, I want to see how many jobs can be created in life-affirming ways that lift NM out of economic despair.

  2. I commend Kay Matthews for her insightful article, especially her descriptions of the staggering costs of nuclear deterrence and the obscure terms used to justify these costs and foreclose public debate. The refurbishment each B-61 nuclear bomb will cost American taxpayers approximately $25 million. Each bomb will be one new weapon in a U.S. arsenal of over 4000 nuclear weapons. If you asked voters nationwide to give up the funds for 4 B-61s out of these 4000 weapons ($100 million) and re-direct it to education and child welfare my guess is that an overwhelming number would say yes. But the debate is never described in these terms. As citizens, we need to change the debate and one way to do that is through your vote.
    James Doyle, Santa Fe, NM

  3. Nuclear Watch New Mexico appreciates your article that in part focused on our collaborative project with Jim Doyle, the nonproliferation expert recently fired by the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) for advocating nuclear weapons abolition. We actually hope to help turn the steer the Lab away from nuclear weapons modernization programs that are partially paid for by cuts to nonproliferation programs, but we know this won’t be easy. The directors of the three nuclear weapons labs (Los Alamos, Lawrence Livermore and Sandia) have inherent conflicts-of-interest, also acting as the presidents of the executive boards of the for-profit limited liability corporations running the labs. Bomb building and plutonium pit production are profitable, not nonproliferation programs to eliminate nuclear weapons.

    For the sake of accuracy I respectfully submit a few corrections to the article. There’s a couple of problems with the sentence “The B61 [Life Extension Program] was supposed to be a less expensive alternative to the building of the Chemistry and Metallurgy Reliable Replacement Nuclear Facility (CMRR-NF), where plutonium pits for nuclear warheads would be built.” First, it’s the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Project. There was a Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) project for a new-design nuclear weapon that was defeated in 2008, in part because Nuclear Watch asked then-Senator Jeff Bingaman to require a study on how long plutonium pits last (pits are the fissile core of nuclear weapons). The resulting answer that pits have reliable lifetimes of ~100 years, more than double the Lab’s previous claims, undermined the need for new-design nuclear weapons and directly related plutonium pit production.

    The B61 Life Extension Program will not only extend that nuclear bomb’s service life by up to six decades, but also give it new military capabilities (despite denials at the highest levels of government) by transforming it into the world’s first nuclear smart bomb. But it is a program that works on nuclear weapons, and hence is not an “alternative” to a facility that will produce plutonium pits, i.e. the CMRR.

    Moreover, the B61 Life Extension Program does not involve the pit, which brings up another important point. The for-profit nuclear weapons labs are pushing another Life Extension Program that would produce a new warhead that would be “interoperable” between intercontinental ballistic missiles and sub-launched missiles that would require production of new pits. But because of the highly speculative nature of this concept, exorbitant expense, and lack of support by the Navy (which likes its existing reliable nuclear warheads just fine), this proposal has been indefinitely delayed.

    The relevant point here is that no production of plutonium pits is scheduled for the foreseeable future. Your article correctly notes that the CMRR-Nuclear Facility has been “deferred.” However, substituted in its place we may see two “modules” at $1 billion each in the next annual federal budget. There is no clear need for them other than to enable expanded plutonium pit production for new nuclear weapons designs that the labs will no doubt keep proposing ad infinitum.

    I end with repeating the article’s closing statement “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.”” Jim Doyle and Nuclear Watch hope to make that stark choice clear where politicians cannot escape taking a public position on one or the other. Does our congressional delegation choose weapons of mass destruction, or do they choose programs to discourage weapons of mass destruction? This question is more than fair, because nonproliferation and dismantlement programs are now being cut to pay for expanding nuclear weapons research and production.

    Jay Coghlan
    Nuclear Watch New Mexico

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