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"Forget the Rest" blog

Comment posted on The New Mexican's website in response to:
Six decades after Trinity Site blast, area residents living with fallout with no help from government

Greg Mello
April 17, 2011

Alas, the Manhattan Project never really ended. It grew to comprise one of the largest industries in the United States, about the size of the automotive industry, and captured far more post-war federal spending than most people realize, on the general order of $8 trillion in today's dollars.

This mal-investment has damaged our prospects as a nation and it has particularly damaged New Mexico, which for two decades fell in economic performance relative to other states, to near the bottom where it has bounced since, precisely as its nuclear weapons spending rose. Regional economists both liberal and conservative have told me in no uncertain terms that New Mexico's biggest economic problem is The Bomb -- specifically our inability to move on from 1945, to realize that our fealty to The Bomb has been a far-reaching economic, political, and social mistake. We have never had the political conversations, the economic development conversations, we have needed. We never really left the Jornada del Muerto.

Our nuclear institutions provide "one-stop shopping" for politicians: our single biggest source of campaign contributions and news opportunities; and alignment with what these institutions portray as the cutting edge of progress, of modernity itself. The powerful nuclear contractors are so important and so concentrated a source of political power and campaign cash, even on a national scale, that Obama thinks he must kowtow to them, as he did in a recent exclusive interview on KOAT.

In reality Los Alamos in particular is managerially incompetent, the very embodiment of self-serving corporate greed, as anyone who spends much time there can see for himself or herself. Most of the older LANL scientists I know understand well how far the quality of work has fallen as budgets have risen. As one member of the National Academy of Sciences put it to me, Los Alamos has a hard time attracting the C students from mediocre schools. For a young scientist, it can be a good place to network from, but it can be hard to get out if one stays for more than a year or two.

In fact, modernity fell off the rails at Los Alamos, Trinity, and Hiroshima, and has never recovered. A senior NNSA official of long experience remarked to me that "nothing good will ever come out of that town." And I think that's right, until there is quite a deep change, on several levels, a wrenching change for many I am sure but one that brighter eyes there already see as necessary. The kids know.

What LANS, which runs LANL, and NNSA have in mind, however, is change in the precisely opposite direction. They seek to build a $4-6 billion plutonium storage and processing facility, the keystone of a plutonium manufacturing complex costing even more than that. These proposed expenses dwarf even the Manhattan Project in New Mexico -- by about a factor of 6. They are approximately equal to the entire cost of building and running Los Alamos from its inception in 1943 through the invention and deployment of the H-bomb in the mid-to-late 1950s. It is like a second Manhattan Project in scale and long-term commitment.

The safety of this enterprise is hardly assured. According to LANL itself, these operations are not safe today -- and have been so since they began. The CDC, in the same study that is the basis of this article, found elevated levels of plutonium in the bones of people living in the Valley, east of Los Alamos, people who never worked at LANL.

LANL's plutonium facilities were never built to nuclear industry safety standards, and even today LANS is seeking to weaken safety standards at their proposed plutonium complex, for example omitting any fire sprinklers, or a confined ventilation system, in their giant proposed plutonium vault, to save money. The very sprinklers which are a standard feature of commercial building codes all over the world would not be required at LANL's plutonium facility under this plan. Not only would this project be a kind of plutonium maquiladora, but it is apparently aiming for safety standards more closely associated with the third world than the first. LANL is crossed by several active faults, which have generated three powerful, shallow earthquakes in the past 11,000 years, as detailed investigations have shown. But earthquakes are just the beginning of things that can go wrong, as the history of the nuclear industry shows.

Should it proceed, this project will inevitably command the attention of the state's political class. It will dwarf all other infrastructure investment in our history except the two interstate highways. More than as yet meets the eye, it will define us, and confine us to wandering on the Jornada del Muerto, while other states and countries invest in education and renewable energy and other societal needs. They will advance as we retreat, increasing our competitive disadvantage. Our World War II economy will continue and cancerously spread, our already pathetically diminished expectations for our society grow ever more narrow and pinched, and our children will leave for better opportunities elsewhere, as they do to to a great extent already. This, as the climate change we are ignoring brings increasing drought and disrupts our delicate ecology.

What hope? Hundreds of citizens are already actively opposing these plans. Please join us. Write me at, or see more at Work with your local governmental leaders and our congressional delegation, as generally pathetic as they are, to demand serious investment in a real future. LANS, the for-profit weapons of mass destruction contractor, which sits the cat-bird's seat, is stealing our future. But their plans are brittle, and they know it. We can stop them. Please help if you can.

We are holding public meetings each Tuesday in Santa Fe at St. John's United Methodist Church at 7 pm, in Room 116. Inquire for other details.

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