Who’s watching national laboratories during pandemic?

Editor’s Note: This “My View” appeared in the April 18, 2020 Santa Fe New Mexican. It is being republished in La Jicarita with the author’s permission.

By Jean Nichols

In this time of the COVID-19 crisis, what role are our national laboratories playing? We need to know.

In the state Department of Health’s March 23 order, the labs are considered essential businesses. There are some jobs that are essential for safety and security at these facilities, but not many. At present, three main National Nuclear Security Administration production plants (Pantex, Kansas City and Y-12) are still operating. Why?

How much of these labs’ operations are being shifted to work on COVID-19-related research and how much is still focused on increased nuclear weapons production? This pandemic is teaching us that our national security priorities are misguided. This is not a time to surrender our safety for the pursuit of war.

We are constantly being reminded that we are all in this together and need to mobilize all our national resources to slow the spread and treat the infected. What are our labs doing toward this? As usual, we are kept in the dark and there is little transparency.

It is up to our congressional delegation and local state and federal officials to put pressure on our laboratories to shift to “minimum safe and secure operations;” provide transparency about the number of employee and subcontractor cases of COVID-19; and provide factual information about how labs are preventing further spread of COVID-19.

That would include information about employee case tracing and avoiding unsafe conditions (e.g. equipment breakdowns leading to nuclear material containment failures that might arise as a result of reduced staffing and oversight).

I believe Los Alamos National Laboratory in particular is secretive and unwilling to answer questions. How many lab employees are working from home and how can nuclear weapons employees do this, given the security issues? Has the laboratory received COVID-19 testing kits and has it done its own testing?

We understand that the Department of Energy and the National Nuclear Security Administration largely have shut down on-site oversight. How can Los Alamos National Laboratory, especially with its plutonium and tritium operations, operate safely?

The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant is in the process of shifting to minimum safe operations. Are the labs more important? If so, what part of them and why? As is the case with other businesses, lab employees can bring COVID-19 home to their families and communities.

The community has a right to know what is going on, how and by whom, and that the risks and benefits are being balanced. Who is in charge? Is it the Department of Energy, the NNSA, lab contractors, the Pentagon, the state Department of Health or local health officials?

These questions need answering. The demand for “minimum safe and secure operations” is not a frivolous one but is connected to major issues of governance and accountability at these facilities.

Jean Nichols is an artist and community activist, doing nonprofit work in Northern New Mexico for over 50 years.