LANL: The “Economic Engine” Defense is Shattered


Kudos to the Rio Grande Sun reporter Molly Montgomery for her article verifying information about Los Alamos National Laboratory that most of us have known through lived lives for years: the Lab’s fiscal impact on surrounding counties–especially on Rio Arriba–has been negative. Even more egregious, the Lab, which commissioned the fiscal impact study by the University of New Mexico Bureau of Business and Economic Research, asked the Bureau to delete this information in its final, released version. I wonder what the current and former New Mexico congressional delegations have to say about the rationale they have used since post World War II that LANL is the economic engine that drives the state’s economy (see below).

These are the statistics showing what LANL cost each county, deleted from the final report:

  • Santa Fe County: $1,414,655
  • Taos County: $809,406
  • Rio Arriba County: $3,215,566.

The fiscal impact on Los Alamos County has been positive: $11,642,589 in Fiscal Year 2017. As Jay Coghlan of Nuclear Watch New Mexico noted in its press release commenting on this news, “Los Alamos County is the 4th wealthiest county in the USA, with an annual median household income of $114,670. It is also an ethnic island of 71% non-Hispanic whites while New Mexico as a whole is 49.3% Hispanic, 11% Native American and 36.8% non-Hispanic white. Rio Arriba County’s annual median household income is a third of Los Alamos County’s at $37,174.”

Montgomery explains in the article that the fiscal impact for individual counties was calculated by comparing the amount of revenue the local governments receive because of the Lab to the costs of services those governments provide for Lab employees and affiliates residing in their counties.

So how is LANL defending this censorship? Montgomery reports in her article that a Lab spokesperson said, “Lab representatives did not want to include the data because the focus of the study was on state, rather than county, impact,” adding that “county-wide data may not present a complete picture of the Lab’s impact on a particular community.”

Surprisingly enough, it was the Regional Coalition of LANL Communities (RCLC) director Eric Vasquez who communicated with the New Mexico Bureau of Business director Jeffrey Mitchell, who offered a different explanation: “ . . . there are some winners and some losers,” he wrote in an email. “I suspect that LANL was less interested in presenting that.”

Montgomery’s article also quotes Rio Arriba Economic Development Director Christopher Madrid who pointed out that because the county is a “bedroom community” of LANL the county pays for services like fire and emergency and road and building maintenance while Los Alamos receives the Gross Receipts Tax for labor of residents who work at the Lab.

All of this comes as LANL gears up to produce up to 30 nuclear bomb triggers, or pits, per year while Savannah River in South Carolina, which has never previously produced them, is scheduled for 50 (if Savannah River is not at production capacity by 2030 those 50 additional pits would be produced at LANL). In a previous La Jicarita article Joni Arends and Basia Miller of Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety laid out what the Department of Energy intends to spend on this bomb making: “Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) is set to receive a 32.5% increase in funding for the Department of Energy (DOE) in the proposed fiscal year 2021 federal budget.  Nearly half of the new $1.5 billion would be spent on ‘plutonium modernization’ so that LANL could manufacture up to 30 plutonium pits, or triggers for nuclear weapons, per year. An additional $618.5 million is slated for LANL’s contribution to plutonium modernization at the Savannah River Site.  DOE wants to “repurpose” the failed MOX Fuel Fabrication Facility into the Savannah River Plutonium Processing Facility for the production of 50 pits per year.”

Nuclear weapons opponents believe that LANL has neither the industrial capacity nor the workforce capable of producing 30 pits per year, much less 80. 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. And it’s not only these groups that are on record doubting the success of its mission: the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), 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 that is now documented for all to see. 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.

Ojo Sarco activist Carol Miller forwarded me a lecture given by Herman Agoyo, former chair of the All Indian Pueblo Council, executive director of Eight Northern Indian Pueblo Council, and tribal administrator of Okay Owingeh, in 1993 at a conference in Las Vegas, New Mexico. Agoyo knew back then, just as we know today, that surrounding LANL communities have not benefited from the nuclear weapons pork:

“When I was a young boy my grandfather told me, “That place in the mountains is a blessing.” I was very familiar with “The Hill” as it was known in those early years, because my aunt and uncle lived and worked there. They frequently arranged “passes” for family members to visit “The Hill.” I interpreted grandpa’s statement to mean “The Hill” meant jobs, education, and new opportunities.

“It has been nearly 50 years, and as my grandfather and the years have passed, as Los Alamos National Laboratory has carved its place into the people and the land of New Mexico, a different understanding grips us. What shall I tell my grandson?

“The promise of jobs and development has not truly benefited us. Yes, people weren’t as hungry as before, some were able to buy cars and trucks, but for the most part, the poor people, Indians, and Spanish were and still are at the bottom of the work ladder where advanced science and the highest technology positions are rewarded for the very few. The vision of “education” has also been an elusive entitlement. Approximately 30 percent of our young people do not finish high school and the majority who do graduate end up with an 8th grade level education, and consequently they are derailed in so many preventable and cruel ways from the best technical and leadership opportunities. Worse, our children are never systematically taught the most important and complex truths about the world they live in, truths that are needed to instill a sense of clear purpose and decision-making confidence in our human society.”

I contacted both Senator Udall and Representative Lujan, asking for a response to this new information released by the New Mexico Bureau of Business and Economic Research. I received no responses. I will continue to try to get a statement and post it in La Jicarita, if and when I do.