I write these thoughts on August 9, 2020, the 75th anniversary of the bombing of Nagasaki. I have been active in northern New Mexico peace and nuclear disarmament efforts for about 20 years, not long compared to many. There were many trips to Los Alamos’ Ashley Pond with signs in Augusts, many walks to the gates of the lab, arrests, petitions against weapons of mass destruction and for cleanup of radioactive waste.
For years, I observed with horror actions by my government and U.S.-based corporations in other countries: coups, pollution not mitigated, communities destroyed, people killed. Only gradually did it dawn on me that we American citizens were not in a special category unlike citizens in those countries, when it came to harm done and not repaired.
Clearly, one of the “costs of doing business” is the cost paid by people who stand in the way of major projects in which government and industry have joined hands. Most of the Southern California beach side community where I grew up was devoured by eminent domain so that LAX could have a north runway. It was naive of me to continue to believe in the inviolate rights of Americans to their property, privacy, safety and civil rights.
So it was with horror that I recently read Kristen Iversen’s memoir, “Full Body Burden,” and the long story of her growing up close to Rocky Flats in Colorado. Rocky Flats was the nation’s plutonium pit plant from 1952 to 1992. Its location, which is severely assailed by winds, is close to Denver and its suburbs. It was sold to the public with a combination of patriotic Cold War pitches and the promise of jobs. Over the years of its operations, there were several criticality events, irreparable leaks, fires in the radioactive materials areas. Always covered up, minimized, denied. Workers at the plant and neighbors in adjoining communities got higher than average frequencies of cancers and many died. The wind blew the plutonium dust into the waterways and topsoil.
In 1998, Rocky Flats was shut down for committing environmental crimes.
The final cleanup solution to Rocky Flats was to cap it with concrete, spread a park over it and call it a wildlife preserve. It wasn’t cleaned up to the degree needed; the DOE wouldn’t commit that much money. And radiation escapes, always. So when the wildlife die of radiation sickness, only the Fish and Game Rangers or those monitoring the area will know.
I’m writing this letter because Los Alamos National Laboratory has been chosen as the replacement for Rocky Flats. It is commanded to make from 30 to 80 new plutonium triggers (pits) a year. Regardless of the fact that radiation and other “mishaps” occur frequently at the lab, some in the nuclear weapons industry stand to make a fortune on expanded pit production.
Just recently, utility workers who were digging a sewer line that was being rushed through so a contractor could finish its low-income housing construction project in time for tax credits, unearthed radioactive legacy waste. In spite of this discovery, work on the project has continued.
Our senators, representatives and governor are not filling the role of speaking out on behalf of their constituents’ health and safety, and the northern New Mexico environment by failing to demand that DOE to conduct a Site-Wide Environmental Impact Statement. Instead, they are gung ho on multi-billion-dollar, industrial-scale plutonium pit production, once again citing patriotism and jobs. What politician wants to stand up to DOE? Money talks. Sometimes it seems only money can be heard.
We northern New Mexicans very much hope that the concerns of the communities that share the air, soil and water of northern New Mexico will be addressed before the lab proceeds further with Rocky Flats on the Pajarito Plateau. We are joining our voices together to demand a new Site-Wide Environmental Impact Statement be conducted BEFORE the commencement of new pit construction.
Susann McCarthy is with Taoseños for Peaceful and Sustainable Futures.