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LANL returns to Santa Fe just as pit production is approved

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a two-part series focusing on Los Alamos National Laboratory’s expansion into Santa Fe.

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

The radio ad sounds ominous.

“What you are about to hear is not based on a Steven King horror story,” it begins. “It is a true horror story that can affect you and your family.”

The ad, paid for by a woman in Eldorado, warns that even more surplus radioactive waste produced at Los Alamos National Laboratory will be shipped “past your house” along a route on N.M. 599 to Interstate 25 to U.S.285.


Billboards paid for by the Los Alamos Study Group oppose plutonium pit production at Los Alamos National Laboratory. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

“This will be an all-out invasion of nuclear weapons waste being dumped in your state for many decades to come,” it says, ending with the unsanitary line, “We are not the nation’s nuclear toilet.”

Cindy Weehler, who paid for the radio ads with help from some like-minded people, said she wanted to let people know about the danger of harboring nuclear waste in New Mexico and risks associated with transporting it.

“Accidents are rare, but they do happen,” she said. “It’s something that our neighbors should know about, and they don’t know.”

The ads are scheduled to run on local radio stations in advance of a May 17 hearing before the state Environment Department over a Department of Energy application to expand the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad, where radioactive waste from LANL is shipped and stored underground.

Meanwhile, there’s another privately funded campaign going on against LANL using a different media.

The Los Alamos Study Group, a longtime opponent of nuclear proliferation, has leased two billboards near the U.S. 550 exit off I-25 in Bernalillo, advocating against LANL’s production of plutonium pits, the triggering device in nuclear warheads. One billboard reads, “Plutonium bomb factory for New Mexico” with a “Dead End” sign breaking up the middle of the text and a mushroom cloud in the background. The other has a photo of two young people riding bikes by a solar array juxtaposed with Edvard Munch’s “The Scream.” The text reads “Build strong communities – not plutonium bombs.”

“We don’t think people around here understand how big this is,” the Los Alamos Study Group’s Greg Mello said of pit production at LANL. “Our house is on fire.”

Now, Mello and others are raising the alarm about LANL’s recently announced expansion into Santa Fe.

In the past three months, LANL has announced 10-year leases at three office buildings in Santa Fe, marking its return to the city after 58 years. Lab Director Thom Mason said he hopes the leases will establish a “permanent presence” for LANL in Santa Fe.

“We call it a takeover plan for Santa Fe,” said Mello, wary of LANL’s plans for the future.

Space issues

The lab says the old Firestone Building on Guadalupe Street that most recently housed the headquarters for Descartes Labs will become a workplace for about 75 employees, and function as a conference center and venue from which to launch community outreach.

“It has some really wonderful collaboration and conference space, so, in addition to housing some of our staff in community partnerships, for example, it will also provide a great opportunity for community access to the lab,” Mason said during a webinar last month.

Two buildings on Pacheco Street at the St. Michael’s Drive intersection will serve as “home base” for a workforce that has grown accustomed to teleworking during the pandemic, Mason said. About 70% of lab workers transitioned to working off-site in the past year. The 500 lab employees using the space will primarily be workers serving “back office functions.”

“We’re also thinking carefully about what elements of our (Science and Technology) would make sense to have a toehold in the Santa Fe community as we make our plans to move into the facilities over the course of the next several months,” Mason said.

Thomas Mason, LANL lab director

Mason said LANL is simply running out of room in Los Alamos, a town established originally as a “Secret City” up the hill from Santa Fe where the world’s first atomic bomb was developed as part of the Manhattan Project.

“We were kind of tapped out for space in the lab and in Los Alamos, so that’s why we began looking further afield,” he said. “We looked for lease space within a 50-mile radius and we’re quite happy with how the (Santa Fe) business community was able to respond to some opportunities that are more or less ready to go.”

The lab is made up of close to 900 buildings, including 13 nuclear facilities, comprising 8.27 million square feet of building space, according to a LANL fact sheet.

Santa Fe-based Nuclear Watch New Mexico points out that the lab is already operating with insufficient space.

According to an executive summary for a report LANL produced on the three newly leased properties in Santa Fe, office space at the lab is well over 98% full and the lab has experienced about 20% growth in the past five years.

“We are estimating up to 2,800 additional personnel (504,000 square feet) required to meet mission,” the report says.

The report indicates that the average age of all LANL buildings is 42 years. Fifty percent of them are more than 50 years old and 20% are 61 years old or older. It says that 82% of the buildings are “substandard or inadequate.”

In context

While the lab says its work in Santa Fe won’t be involved directly in nuclear weapons research and development, that makes no difference to people such as Mello. About 78% of LANL’s $3.7 billion budget is dedicated to weapons production.

“No one talks about the context of this – bombs,” he said.

Ken Mayers of Veterans for Peace protests at the corner of Guadalupe and West Alameda streets, across from a building Los Alamos National Laboratory will use for administrative offices, conferences and workshops. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Some do, and they shout it from the corner of Guadalupe and West Alameda streets every Friday at noon. Veterans for Peace, Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety and their allies moved their weekly demonstration from Cerrillos and St. Francis to the site of LANL’s new downtown Santa Fe offices. Many of them raise the moral issue of having the presence of a “bomb factory” set up shop in the heart of the “City of Holy Faith.”

LANL also has a less-than-stellar safety record and is way behind on efforts to clean up hazardous material at the lab.

In February, the state Environment Department filed a civil lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Energy over what it says is a “continuing pattern of delay and noncompliance” with the cleanup of hazardous legacy waste.

“We expect the state’s laboratories to up their game – financially and otherwise – to protect and clean up our environment, and operate with the highest regard for safety,” Nora Meyers Sackett, the governor’s press secretary, said in a statement. “We expect, and will continue to demand, more from them as responsible members of our communities.”

However, the statement also included praise for LANL for its work with state officials on COVID-19 modeling and vaccine research during the pandemic.

“New Mexico has long benefitted from the many invaluable scientific and technological advancements that come from the state’s national laboratories. Los Alamos and Sandia are also a source of high-paying jobs for thousands of New Mexicans and their families,” the statement said.

Santa Fe city officials and the business community have extended a warm welcome to LANL, focusing on economic benefits that come with close to 600 well-paying jobs.

Pro-business Mayor Alan Webber, who made his millions as co-founder of the business trade magazine “Fast Company,” told the Journal that the hundreds of new jobs relocated to Santa Fe will benefit the city during the post-pandemic economic recovery. “Importantly, we’ll also see more long-term entrepreneurial connections between LANL and the Santa Fe startup community,” he added.

During the mayor’s meeting with reporters last week, the city’s economic development director, Rich Brown, said that the relocated LANL jobs pay between $90,000 and $110,000 per year. But he noted that many lab employees who will work in Santa Fe already live here or commute from Albuquerque, “so those are already existing employees,” he said.

LANL employed 12,367 people, according to its 2020 economic impact report. Fewer than half – 43% – live in Los Alamos County. Twenty-three percent – 2,896 employees – reside in Santa Fe County and, collectively, are paid salaries totaling $301.4 million.

Sixteen percent of the workforce comes from Rio Arriba County, while Bernalillo County, which includes Albuquerque, is home to 684 lab employees, or less than 6%.

A dirty business

Santa Fe City Councilor Renee Villarreal

City Councilor Renee Villarreal says it makes sense for local lab employees to work closer to home and it “could potentially reduce carbon emissions by not having to commute so far.”

But she’s concerned about plans for plutonium pit production at LANL.

“We cannot deny that LANL’s expansion into Santa Fe is a direct consequence of the Lab’s expanding role as a nuclear bomb production site,” she said in an email to the Journal. “In other words, LANL’s expansion into Santa Fe is also designed to relocate personnel so that plutonium pit production can be expanded on the Hill. And this gives me a reason to be concerned.”

Villarreal reiterated her objection – and that of the Governing Body – to the National Nuclear Security Administration’s refusal to conduct a new environmental study before proceeding with plans to produce pits. Last September, the NNSA, the federal agency that oversees the national labs for the Department of Energy, determined additional analysis “is not required” under the National Environmental Policy Act.

“The last one was in 2008 and is woefully outdated,” Villarreal said of the most recent comprehensive environmental study at the lab. “LANL’s expansion beyond its own boundaries is clearly a major change that demands a new (Site-Wide Environmental Impact Statement, or SWEIS). Yet, the DOE completely ignores both the City and County’s formal resolutions calling for a new SWEIS.”

Santa Fe County Commissioner Anna Hansen

County Commissioner Anna Hansen added that the Buckman Direct Diversion Board – a city-county board that oversees a joint water project that takes water from the Rio Grande for public use – also passed a resolution calling for a new SWEIS.

“Because we get our water supply right down below LANL and we’re concerned about water quality,” she said. “We have unlined waste from 70 years ago that needs to be cleaned up. And I mean cleaned up, not capped.”

Hansen said what she really wants is for LANL to change its mission to something other than weapons production.

“It’s hard enough that we have to live across the valley from a nuclear weapons manufacturer, because that’s what they are, when we should be working on climate issues, when we should be working on feeding the world,” she said.

Asked about her feelings on LANL expanding into Santa Fe, Hansen, who represents a district that includes a slice of the northern part of the city, said, “I don’t like LANL moving to Santa Fe and I do not want any nuclear weapons work done in Santa Fe County.”

Big, as in billions

LANL touts its significant economic impact on surrounding communities and New Mexico in its annual analysis, highlighting the jobs it provides, workforce development efforts, collaborations with educational institutions and the money it spends with small businesses in New Mexico.

The lab says it accounts for $1.2 billion in salaries paid to New Mexicans and that it spent more than $413 million with small businesses in the state in 2020.

Forty percent of its employees are native New Mexicans and 31% of regular/term employees have at least one degree from a college or university, according to the report.

But they build bombs – and the waste produced in that effort gets shipped past neighborhoods and is dumped in another corner of the state. That’s the message Mello and Weehler are trying to get out.

But is anyone listening?

Mello is afraid not enough people are, distracted by the events of these times.

“We have an environmental crisis, we have an economic and social emergency, and a pandemic. Everyone drifts along like these are minor problems,” Mello said of issues relating to the lab. “Even the little things are big. Everything is big.”

Last week, the NNSA approved the project definition phase and conceptual design for Los Alamos Plutonium Pit Production Project. The cost estimate ranges from $2.7 billion to $3.9 billion and the work is scheduled to be completed in five years.

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