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LANL’s 70 years of history fascinating

SANTA FE, N.M. — Los Alamos National Laboratory celebrates its 70th anniversary this week with a series of lectures and tours of the lab’s “seldom seen areas,” according to its news release announcing the events.

Perhaps not surprisingly for an institution that was born from a highly secret World War II weapons effort, none of these events are open to the public.

That’s a shame, since two lab “open houses” in the 1950s remain among my most vivid childhood memories. Where and how else could a kid get a glimpse of the unearthly blue glow of one of the world’s first nuclear reactors, conveniently situated less than a mile from home, and at the bottom of the canyon that also housed the community skating rink?

Most of this week’s lectures have to do with the weapons program at the lab, and one whole day of lectures is classified and not open to anyone without both U.S. citizenship and a security clearance.

More innocuous, you would have thought, is a lecture Monday by New Mexico State University History Department Chairman Jon Hunner about how the secret atomic bomb site, which by 1945 was home to about 5,000 people, was transformed into a real community in the decades following the end of the war.

But that lecture, too, is closed to the public. Hunner reprised his planned remarks in an interview last week; his book, “Inventing Los Alamos: The Growth of an Atomic Community” was published in 2003 and is full of fascinating detail about the first post-war decades.

The emerging Cold War – and the Soviet Union’s own successful atomic test at the end of the 1940s – was an important factor in the decision to keep Los Alamos operating, Hunner makes clear. In the few years between the end of the war and the successful testing of the hydrogen bomb in 1952, the then-Atomic Energy Commission reinvented the community, investing millions of 1940s dollars in housing, schools, roads and other infrastructure.

“Once they were successful with nuclear weapons, instead of closing the lab, they kept it,” Hunner said. “But it wasn’t an attractive community – it was war time, things were thrown up, it was bad construction.”

The model for the new community was the “garden suburb,” with single-family housing, centralized shopping areas and emerald green landscaping.

That alone was incongruous, Hunner said. “In 1945, there were no suburbs in New Mexico. This was more like a suburb of Berkeley (Calif.) or Washington, D.C.”

More incongruous: in the middle of this garden suburb, and in a community where by the early 1950s fully a quarter of all residents were children under 10, radioactive waste flowed directly into some canyons where those same children spent most of their playtime. (The waste areas were finally fenced in several years after parents began complaining, according to Hunner.)

Another incongruity: “It was a socialist community,” Hunner said. “The government owned everything. If you wanted a light bulb changed, they sent someone over to do that.”

Of all the laboratories and atomic energy-related communities, including Lawrence Livermore Laboratory in California, Oak Ridge, in Tennessee and Hanford, in Washington, Los Alamos remained a secure, gated and government-owned and -administered community the longest, until 1957. Hunner said the Atomic Energy Commission’s decision to open up the town’s residential and business areas to the public was highly unpopular in Los Alamos at the time.

“The feeling had been that there was a need for security at Los Alamos,” he said. But by about 1956, the AEC decided it was too costly to keep the fences up around the residential community.

Among those who opposed removing the gates, he said, “there were worries about kidnapping and other stuff. But nothing like that happened.”

Plus, Hunner said, some in the town wanted to own homes, and to choose different paint colors than the ones the government offered when government contractors were sent to paint the house.

“With the opening of the town, there was a lot of freedom that hadn’t been there before,” Hunner said.

And as he notes in his books, the very tiny crime wave that immediately followed the dismantling of the town entrance gates – a small epidemic of cracked or stolen safes – was nearly all the work of town residents (including teenagers).

Another thing that set Los Alamos apart from the rest of the state was the quality of its schools, also subsidized for decades by the federal government. In part, that was because there was not, in the wholly government-owned town, a property tax base for school funding, as there was elsewhere, Hunner said.

But the schools were also a prime recruiting device in the effort to bring top scientists to the lab.

“Scientists demanded good schools for their children,” Hunner said. “Los Alamos schools were the equivalent of some of the private school academies on the East Coast.”

Federal spending per pupil in Los Alamos was $308 in 1948, according to Hunner, or nearly twice as much as per-pupil spending on New Mexico’s state-funded public schools at the time and substantially more than the national average of $180 per pupil.

The quality of Los Alamos schools – and the highly educated workforce – made an impression on those who commuted to The Hill from the surrounding area. Carlos Vasquez, like Hunner a historian and now director of history and literary arts at the National Hispanic Cultural Center in Albuquerque, said many Upper Rio Grande Valley residents he interviewed about the impact of the lab in the early years felt very proud and honored to work there.

For many, the lab’s comparatively high salaries also made a huge difference in their lives. Where his grandfather had often left New Mexico for months at a time to make a living, picking sugar beets in Colorado, herding sheep in Wyoming or Montana and mining in Arizona, Vasquez said, it was suddenly possible to “get a job 45 miles away that paid many times what the same job would pay in the valley.”

“People who got those jobs, it changed their lifestyle,” he said.

For some, the impact was material. “When pro panel (metal roofing) came along, you could tell who had a job at the lab – they had pro panel” instead of the more traditional galvanized tin, Vasquez said.

Others were able to maintain the valley’s traditional agricultural way of life because someone in the family had a good job at the lab, he added.

It also opened up people’s view to the need for education, Vasquez said.

Now 66, he remembers his grandfather’s skepticism over his intention to go to college. “It was all right that I got a bachelor’s degree,” said Vasquez, a Chimayó native who was the first in his family to attend college. “And when I announced I was going for a master’s, that was OK, too – it was understood I could be a teacher. But when I said I was going for a Ph.D., well, my grandfather said, ‘That’s it; this kid just doesn’t want to work.'”

Hunner said the decision to locate so many national laboratories and other government-funded scientific endeavors in the West has changed the whole region.

“Before World War II, the West was a marginal area,” he said. “But Hanford, Los Alamos, Lawrence Livermore – parts of the West became pace setters in scientific research. That led to private enterprise in Albuquerque and Santa Fe. And it was an important cultural influx – some say the Santa Fe Opera wouldn’t exist without Los Alamos (patrons).”

The importance of the labs has remained despite diversification of the laboratory’s mission, he said. “There has been a lot of funding for stockpile stewardship, but there’s also research on energy, the human genome, lasers. It’s still a cutting edge place, more like a research university.”

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