By KAY MATTHEWS
On August 1 the U.S. Congress passed the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) H. R. 5515, a massive $700 billion plus blueprint for Pentagon spending for weapons programs, troop build-up, personnel raises, and most ominous for those of us in New Mexico, the production of nuclear warhead cores, or “pits” at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL). At a July 30 discussion at the Taos Cultural Energy radio studio Greg Mello and Trish Williams Mello of the Los Alamos Study Group explained how we arrived at this potential doomsday development at LANL.
In May, in the House version of NDAA, the New Mexico delegation, Democrats Michelle Lujan Grisham and Ben Ray Lujan and Republican Steve Pearce, introduced an amendment to the bill that preempted further government study of the need to produce new atomic bomb pits. With their successful amendment, the bill designated LANL as the “Plutonium Science and Production Center of Excellence” for the US. It required LANL to “implement surge efforts to exceed 30 pits per year to meet Nuclear Posture Review and national policy,” dramatic new requirements. It required the Pentagon, not the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) to assess the strategy to manufacture “up to 80 pits per year at Los Alamos through the use of multiple labor shifts and additional equipment” until underground “modular” facilities are completed to increase capacity still further. It required NNSA production planning to default to LANL in case the Savannah River Site at the South Carolina facility, “is not operational and producing pits by 2030,” which is known to be virtually impossible (the South Carolina congressional delegation is fighting to protect the site as the planned home for a U.S. mixed-oxide fuel facility, intended to turn 34 tons of weapons-grade defense plutonium into fuel for commercial nuclear reactors).
Senators Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, who have long supported nuclear weapons programs at the New Mexico labs, supported the bill in the Senate; the final bill has yet to be posted but it appears these provisions have been kept. The only Democrats to vote against the bill are those who might make a presidential bid in the 2020 primary campaign to run on a progressive platform opposed to military spending: Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand and Jeff Merkley. I will talk more about our congressional delegation’s role in nuclear weapons development later in this article.
There are approximately 12,000 pits in nuclear warheads today: deployed weapons; the reserve arsenal; and those waiting to be dismantled. A scientific consensus assigns their shelf life at 85 to 100 years, with the possibility of outer portion replacement if necessary, negating the need for new pit production.
Greg Mello also focused on the fact that LANL has neither the physical nor industrial capacity to build the 80 pits it’s assigned by 2030. Until 1989, these pits were made at the Rocky Flats Plant near Denver, Colorado (shut down due to egregious environmental violations), while LANL functioned as a Research and Development Laboratory.
Unlike Rocky Flats, situated next to a major urban area, LANL is isolated, sitting on a plateau in rural northern New Mexico with finger-like mesas that make facilities hard to build and supplies hard to access. A research and development culture attracts a very different type of scientist or engineer from the type of worker necessary for industrial production. This cultural isolation has also produced an institutional arrogance and privilege that largely benefits those who live within the Los Alamos community and who benefit from low taxes, an excellent educational system, and government subsidies compared to surrounding communities. The Pajarito Plateau, where LANL is located, is a vast seismic area and the Lab itself sits on a layer of volcanic dust. Any new buildings must take into account these factors to address safety, which increases both the time frame and construction costs (the $5.4 billion “deferred” Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility is a case in point). It’s also questionable whether the workforce in New Mexico has the capacity to meet the requirements of producing 80 pits per year; a history of accidents at the Lab involving the handling of plutonium is testimony to inadequate safety and training of the existing work force.
Back to the political. Mello went through the list of agencies he believes know that LANL will never succeed in this mission: LANL itself; the National Nuclear Security Administration, the government agency that administers the nation’s nuclear labs; Congress; the Department of Defense; the Albuquerque Journal (it wrote an editorial questioning the mission); the congressional delegation. So why does the latter continue to endlessly lobby for nuclear weapons development at LANL? Follow the money; this is their pork. They, and their predecessors, have made New Mexico—and their careers—so dependent upon federal dollars that they have to continually promote the “economic engine” trope to defend the hopelessly mismanaged laboratory on “the hill” that has suffered serious security breaches, rip-offs, discrimination, lawsuits, environmental degradation, worker retaliation, failure to meet deadlines, cost overruns, and most egregiously, has contributed to the disparity in income equality all across the state. By focusing on this single engine they have failed to help develop a more diverse and innovative economy that can provide jobs that won’t end up killing its workforce.
The discussion also turned to the Regional Coalition of LANL Communities (RCLC), which recently appointed a new director, Eric Vasquez (married to Stephanie Garcia Richard who’s running for Land Commissioner), after former director Andrea Romero’s (running for state representative in district 46) contract wasn’t renewed over transgressions in lobbying expenditures. RCLC is comprised of the City of Española, Los Alamos County, Ohkay Owingeh, Pueblo of Jemez, Rio Arriba County, Santa Fe County, City of Santa Fe, Taos County, and Town of Taos. It’s purpose is stated on its website: “The Regional Coalition is a conduit for Northern New Mexico communities to make a direct impact on local, state and federal government decision-making in regional economic development and nuclear cleanup at Los Alamos National Laboratories (LANL).” Vasquez will actually be working for Chicanos Por La Causa, CPLCNM, which is the contractor that was hired to manage the Coalition.
As I’ve been reporting in La Jicarita, activists in Taos and some of the other member groups have been calling for better accountability of the RCLC mission: lobbying strictly for cleanup funding, not nuclear weapons development; conflict of interest issues; and public participation opportunities. A group of Taos citizens has drawn up a list of demands for their representative on the RCLC that will hopefully be presented at the next Coalition meeting. But this question came up at the meeting with the Mellos: Why is there a Coalition in the first place if it’s unclear that it adheres to its mission of advocating for cleanup. Greg, who often travels to Washington D.C. to meet with government officials to discuss issues that pertain to LANL, said that he was told these kinds of lobbying groups were dismissed as unnecessary to the budgeting process. Most of those attending the meeting expressed the opinion that the RCLC should be dissolved—too much money was being funneled from the member communities into its coffers.
As for the impending mission of pit production at LANL, it’s a daunting scenario. Greg ended his July 25 Los Alamos Study Group bulletin this way:
“Pit production isn’t needed for decades, even to maintain today’s massive, diverse arsenal. Were it needed, LANL is not the place to do it, as the Pentagon and NNSA well know. The amazing thing is that both of these agencies are willing to spend billions on a plan they themselves have intense doubts about in a rush to produce new atom bombs, whether as triggers for huge H-bomb warheads and bombs, or as lower-yield tactical nukes and “mininukes.”
“The New Mexico delegation has betrayed voters. These bizarre priorities only make sense as part of a huge, growing military-oriented federal budget that betrays progressives and conservatives alike.”