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"Forget the Rest" blog



Treat the state’s lab addiction

By Greg Mello PUBLISHED: Friday, March 20, 2015 at 12:05 am

Nuclear explosions produce inhumanly extreme temperatures and pressures, many orders of magnitude beyond those friendly to life. Warhead energy yields are more than a million times what chemical explosions can produce. To produce these effects requires unstable (hence radiotoxic) materials, which must be handled carefully and securely. Esoteric knowledge must be kept secret.

From these basic facts, others follow as night follows day. Including this: nuclear labs and factories like Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) cannot be engines of economic development. And LANL hasn’t been.Greg Mello

What’s worse, political attachment to the state’s nuclear laboratories is now a potent barrier to even keeping, let alone improving, our economic, social and political well-being. At present, we’re failing. Faith in lab-based “innovation” as an economic engine will drive us down, as it has already.

To thrive, New Mexico must fully and quickly embrace political goals based on human dignity and solidarity, and on active, successful environmental stewardship. These are truly conservative values.

This kind of politics, which is the only kind capable of saving the state from further abuse and decline, is incompatible with respect for nuclear weapons and their custodial institutions.

Meditating on the Iliad, Simone Weil remarked, “Only he who knows the empire of might, and knows how not to respect it, is capable of love and justice.” “Love and justice” is shorthand for the social contract and environmental stewardship New Mexico needs.

To prosper, it is necessary to politically let go of the labs in order to embrace almost opposite values. The labs haven’t made net contributions to the state. They won’t. Their uncertain future will always be clouded – and, especially in LANL’s case, controversial and contaminated. That future need not be ours. For fundamental reasons these labs, especially LANL, will remain economically sterile and politically destructive. Our political attention, values and investments can and must be elsewhere.

For 72 years, LANL has been primarily devoted to nuclear weapons. Right at the beginning, using the new bombs on cities was a horrendous war crime, the shame of which has blighted Los Alamos ever since. Far from rushing to beat Hitler to the bomb, the leaders of Los Alamos knew in 1944 that Germany never had an atomic bomb project. By March, 16 months before Trinity, General Groves told a dinner party at Los Alamos that the main purpose of the Manhattan Project was to provide the military means to dominate the Soviet Union.

That mission hasn’t changed much. Eurasian sovereignty remains the primary challenge to U.S. global domination. Technologies of control and coercion, especially nuclear weapons, remain the labs’ mission.

Why can’t nuclear weapons and the institutions that serve them produce economic development, fundamentally?

Think about it. Nuclear weapons are neither productive investments nor a salable good. They’re a bad.

Nuclear weapons are inherently transgressive of moral and legal norms. Their direct physical effects – blast, fire and radiation – produce devastation over very wide areas. Indirect effects, less predictable, extend even farther in space and time. The fatal and injuring effects of nuclear weapons so greatly outstrip the local and temporary effects of chemical and biological weapons as to be in another class entirely. They and all that pertains to them are inherently anti-civilizational.

The “deterrence” they supposedly offer (inapplicable to nearly every real threat, even in the most generous analysis) is based on mutual terror. It presupposes a firm plan, to be executed rapidly, that would annihilate one’s own country along with the enemy’s.

Annihilation would occur in two ways. First, via incoming warheads. With nodal targeting and electromagnetic pulse, even a few warheads – perhaps even just one or two – would suffice to eliminate the United States as a functioning society. Second, soot-induced “nuclear winter” and destruction of the ozone layer that would follow the use of even a small fraction of current arsenals would ensure the deaths of billions and the extinction of many terrestrial species (e.g. from retinal burns).

So nuclear deterrence is akin to a large suicide vest, with a lethal radius comparable to that of the earth. Any “patriotism” it claims is perverted and paranoid. Of course, we all know it’s not patriotism that drives this industry. It’s mostly greed.

Nuclear weapons have no military utility, even against non-nuclear foes, as repeated analyses have shown. They would cause widespread “collateral damage” with even the smallest yields. Any nation using them can kiss its status, respect and security goodbye. Economic decline would be swift.

Such useless, pariah “weapons” have a dim future. As does LANL.

The point is, these are not productive assets. This whole industry is a liability.

As far as federal spending goes, non-military spending produces far more jobs, even in this state. The political loyalties, values and committee assignments that support nuclear weapons run counter to economic development. With our heads in the labs, the future passes us by. When politicians support the nuclear labs “because of jobs,” it’s really just their own jobs they’re talking about.

Sure, LANL has employees who spend some of their outsized salaries. It has suppliers and contractors. But that’s not economic development. It’s the dole. What of value is produced? What infrastructure is built?

Meanwhile, contamination remains. Dumping continues. The risk of accidents continues. Secrecy continues, with no true public meaning worth having. The “aura of apartheid” (Bourgois) continues.

LANL in particular cannot fruitfully broaden its missions. It’s far too expensive, isolated and specialized (in both staff and facilities). It’s not all that competent. It does cleanup inefficiently. It is highly politicized and uses monopoly power to extract outrageous rents on its nuclear weapons mission, which it seeks to make as complicated, lucrative and permanent as possible. Its parent companies are involved in civilian nuclear technologies worldwide, creating conflicts of interest in energy and nonproliferation. There is no new mission for LANL that could not be better done elsewhere. Its bomb mission won’t grow, thankfully.

The state faces a grim future unless conservative values of solidarity and stewardship are made cornerstones, and our nuclear lab addiction is successfully treated.

Greg Mello is co-founder of the Los Alamos Study Group, a watchdog organization that advocates nuclear disarmament.

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