Santa Fe’s relationship with Los Alamos National Laboratory has been rocky for years.
The City Council, with some regularity, has passed resolutions of concern about the nuclear weapons lab’s environmental impact and radioactive materials safety lapses, the production of weapons parts in Los Alamos and the proliferation of nuclear weapons in general.
A 2005 council resolution recognized as “immoral the notion that human security can ever be built upon instruments of mass destruction and the will to use them.” The City Council called for rejection of “all proposals to build new or expanded factories for nuclear weapons and nuclear weapons components.”
These days, LANL is in fact ramping up factory operations to build plutonium bomb cores known as “pits” as part of a massive effort to modernize the U.S. nuclear weapons array. The project means big job growth for the lab, more dollars spread around northern New Mexico, and the need for more work space and housing for LANL workers.
Both the City Council and the County Commission have passed new resolutions, this time calling for a new and extensive environmental impact review of pit production, an idea the National Nuclear Security Administration has rejected.
But the relationship between Santa Fe’s traditionally liberal political establishment and LANL is about to change. Santa Fe will no longer be taking shots at the lab and its leading role in the nuclear weapons complex with any sense of us-versus-them separation. LANL is becoming part of Santa Fe.
The lab plans to bring close to 600 well-paying jobs – with salaries of $90,000 a year and up – to Santa Fe. LANL is moving into the former Descartes Lab headquarters downtown and two big office buildings, used formerly primarily by state government, at Pacheco and St. Michael’s.
The downtown site on Guadalupe Street will be a workplace for about 75 employees, and function as a conference center and venue for launching community outreach. The buildings on Pacheco will be used by about 500 lab employees serving “back office functions,” and possibly in science and technology jobs, says LANL director Thomas Mason.
These moves instantly make the lab one of the biggest employers in Santa Fe. For years, the city has been looking for ways to expand its economic base beyond state and local government, and tourism, and LANL is doing that by rolling some of its work force, expanding fast as pit production begins, downhill. LANL has had even bigger plans for Santa Fe. Public documents obtained by the watchdog Los Alamos Study Group show that the lab’s previously confidential 2019 proposal for the city-owned Midtown Campus called for LANL to use the entire 60-acre site and also be involved in redevelopment of the entire St. Michael’s Drive commercial corridor. The city didn’t accept the offer.
Just last week, the Los Alamos Reporter reported that LANL also has issued a request for information from entities that could lease the lab “up to 100,000 square feet of light laboratory space within a 50-mile driving radius” of Los Alamos – which would include Santa Fe and Española.
The lab says its work in Santa Fe won’t be involved directly in nuclear weapons research and development. The lab’s other work includes scientific endeavors in such areas as space exploration, tracking infectious disease outbreaks and development of solar energy.
Of course, many LANL employees have always lived in Santa Fe and commuted to Los Alamos. LANL’s 2020 economic impact report says 23% of its 12,367 employees – 2,896 people – resided somewhere in Santa Fe County and, collectively, were paid salaries totaling $301.4 million.
But establishing a physical presence in Santa Fe takes the lab’s impact here to another, more obvious, level.
Despite all the resolutions Santa Fe city leaders have passed over the years questioning LANL operations and the rejection of the lab’s Midtown Campus plan, city officials and the business community are now extending a warm welcome to the lab and its workforce.
It’s unclear how many of the people who will work at LANL’s Santa Fe sites already reside in Santa Fe. But Mayor Alan Webber said having new jobs in town 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 said.
Those 500 jobs at St. Mike’s and Pacheco, in particular, could be a big boost to surrounding neighborhoods. Owners of restaurants on the St. Mike’s corridor, from Loyal Hound and Sagche’s Coffee House on one end to Santa Fe Bite and Jambo’s on the other end, should be licking their chops at the prospect of new customers.
But many of LANL’s critics among anti-nuke, peace advocacy and environmental communities see the lab’s move as an invasion. “We call it a takeover plan for Santa Fe,” said Greg Mello of Los Alamos Study Group.
City Councilor Renee Villarreal said, “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. 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.”
County Commissioner Anna Hansen said bluntly, “I don’t like LANL moving to Santa Fe and I do not want any nuclear weapons work done in Santa Fe County.”
A big LANL presence in Santa Fe could certainly affect Santa Fe’s self-image. Santa Fe Style has never included one of those atomic symbols such as the Albuquerque Isotopes use.
But the reality is that its vast amounts of money and jobs make LANL, with an annual budget now north of $3 billion, an irresistible force, especially in a poor state such as New Mexico.
You can see it in the state’s politics, where a congressional delegation full of liberal Democrats fights to keep plutonium bomb component production and its resultant nuclear waste outputs in Los Alamos. Conservative Republicans could not have done more for the lab on this issue.
So, despite the protests from activists, Santa Fe will almost certainly offer little resistance to LANL moving some non-hazardous operations here, even if there was some way to stop it. The lab plan for the Midtown Campus, which seemingly would have created a sort of nuclear-free LANL 2.0, apparently was just a bridge too far for city officials now welcoming an influx of lab jobs.
Some Santa Feans will feel betrayed by city officialdom’s embrace of the lab or that they’ve been made complicit in the production of weapons of mass destruction.
But LANL’s expansion also can be seen as a sort of truth-telling.
Having lab offices in place makes it perfectly explicit that Santa Fe – however much it sees itself as an art town, a liberal town, a spiritual place, a refuge for peace advocates, tree huggers, weirdos and outsiders – has long relied on the numerous employees of a nuclear weapons lab living here in the city for a significant part of its economy.
Debate on the overarching issue of whether mutually assured destruction remains the best available method of sustaining some kind of global order will continue, of course.
We get it that opponents of the nuclear weapons enterprise will fight LANL and bomb production on every front. LANL’s work is expensive and hazardous, and needs watchdogs. The watchdogs shouldn’t stop arguing, as have even some under-the-radar conservative voices, that new pit production is essentially a massive, unnecessary make-work program, with thousands of old ones in storage. Advocates should continue to support efforts such as a recent state Environment Department lawsuit that says LANL is out of compliance with requirements for cleaning up its long-term “legacy” waste.
But those issues will remain whether lab workers have offices in Santa Fe or not. Stopping LANL’s office plans in Santa Fe might be a symbolic victory, but the lab and its big budget would likely find or build other office space somewhere else in northern New Mexico.
The real issue is the expansion of the lab in its new role as a plutonium pit factory. Eventually, it may be the courts that decide if LANL has met environmental rules for this undertaking. If it gets a favorable judge’s ruling, or just takes its time and does a new environmental review, then LANL will have a chance to show that it is up to the task of making 30 pits a year. A study by the nonprofit Institute for Defense Analysis that was commissioned by Congress cast doubt on the NNSA’s entire pit production plans, saying risks in the complexity of the program make “eventual success of the strategy to reconstitute plutonium pit production … far from certain.”
Still, absent an edict from Pope Francis – who has proclaimed “the possessing of nuclear weapons is immoral” – that would excommunicate President Joe Biden from the Catholic Church unless the federally mandated pit production is halted, the lab’s work will probably continue, and it will probably continue somewhere in northern New Mexico.