Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
Editor’s Note: The Journal takes an in-depth look at LANL’s expansion into Santa Fe.
SANTA FE – Something big – as in billions – is happening at Los Alamos National Laboratory.
As part of efforts to ramp up the upgrade of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, LANL, along with the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, have been tasked with manufacturing hundreds of plutonium pits, the element within the core of a nuclear warhead that sets off the explosion.
The project will cost in the tens of billions of dollars between the two national laboratories over the next 10 years, with a big chunk of it directed to the construction of pit production facilities and installation of infrastructure at LANL, the birthplace of the atomic bomb.
The National Nuclear Security Administration has already said that the initial cost for improvements will be between $2.7 billion and $3.9 billion over the next five years. For perspective, LANL’s current budget is $3.8 billion, with about $2.7 billion going toward weapons programs, according to LANL’s website.
But Jay Coghlan, executive director of Nuclear Watch New Mexico, said the overall cost will be much higher.
He says that after the annual program costs for the Los Alamos Plutonium Pit Production Project (LAP4) are added,the overall outlay will be to closer to $8 billion.
And that’s just at LANL.
In 2018, Congress directed LANL and the Savannah River Site to produce 80 pits per year by 2030 as the U.S. goes about replacing aging unspent warhead cores.
When it’s all over, Coghlan says, it will amount to a huge waste in taxpayer money at the expense of the environment.
“NNSA’s unnecessary and provocative plans will cost at least 43 billion taxpayer dollars, create more contamination and radioactive wastes and help fuel a new nuclear arms race,” he said.
Some clue about the scale of work to be performed at LANL as part of LAP4 could come Friday, when the Biden administration unveils its proposed budget for the coming fiscal year, he said.
But even then, there may not be a full accounting of just how big the project will be.
“We don’t know how much detail there will be; we may just get granular details about how much to LANL, how much for pit production,” Coghlan said.
The push to resume production of plutonium pits spans multiple presidential administrations, always with the support of New Mexico’s congressional delegation, which recognized the economic benefits and jobs created.
The justification has always been that the U.S. needs to ensure the stability and reliance of its arsenal, given growing global security concerns. The nuclear cores now in the nation’s nuclear arsenal date back to the 1970s and ’80s and need to be upgraded, officials say.
LANL Director Thom Mason said in a recent webinar that LANL’s expanded mission is a product of today’s world.
“I think we all wish that we lived in a world where nuclear weapons weren’t necessary,” he said. “But as long as we’re not in that world, the responsibility that we’re given by the Department of Defense, by Congress, by the Department of Energy is to make sure that our deterrent is safe, secure and reliable.”
Mason said LAP4 will have a “significant” economic impact in coming years, with the benefit extending to small businesses that contract with the lab.
“These plans are pretty large in scale and scope, and they’re gonna require public-private partnerships to execute,” he said. “We’re going to be relying on the contracting community to deliver for us, and it’s going to be a very significant impact on the economy of northern New Mexico as we go down this path.”
The path has led LANL back to Santa Fe after a 58-year absence, much to the chagrin of peace activists and others.
From 1943 to 1963, those visiting the site had to stop by an office at 109 E. Palace Ave., just off Santa Fe’s historic Plaza, before being shown the way to the “Secret City” on the hill.
In the past few months, the lab announced lease agreements with three office buildings that will house nearly 600 lab employees in the city named for St. Francis of Assisi, the Catholic saint known for his compassion for animals and reverence for the natural environment.
Mason said the lab is simply running out of space in Los Alamos and the Santa Fe offices will serve as a “home base” for lab employees that have grown used to telecommuting during the COVID-19 pandemic. Nearly 2,900 of the lab’s more than 12,000 employees already live in Santa Fe County.
LANL has also helped develop a radiation protection program at Northern New Mexico College in Española and a machining engineering technologies certificate at Santa Fe Community College to help establish a supply chain for its future workforce.
The lab recently sent notice that it’s seeking up to 10,000 square feet of “light laboratory space” within 50 miles of Los Alamos.
“We were kind of tapped out for space in the lab and in Los Alamos, so that’s why we began looking further afield,” Mason said.
According to a LANL report, the lab is more than 98% full in terms of space and has experienced about 20% growth in just 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.”
LANL plans to build two new production facilities in Los Alamos to meet its goal of producing 30 plutonium pits per year by 2025.
Mason said that most of the lab’s Santa Fe employees will serve “back-office functions” and not be actively involved in weapons research and development.
In the City of Holy Faith
But that’s not good enough for people such as Ken Mayers, co-founder of the Santa Fe chapter of Veterans for Peace, which holds an anti-war demonstration in Santa Fe every Friday at noon.
“The full name of the city is the (Royal) City of Holy Faith of Saint Francis Assisi,” Mayers noted. “The pope himself has said that the building of nuclear weapons is immoral, so we don’t want to associate that with the City of Holy Faith.”
Indeed, in 2019, while visiting Nagasaki, Japan – where the second of the bombs developed during the Manhattan Project was dropped in 1945, killing tens of thousands of people – Pope Francis, who adopted his papal name to honor Saint Francis of Assisi, made the most condemning statement yet from a pope regarding the modern age of weapons of war.
“The use of atomic energy for purposes of war is immoral,” the head of the Catholic faith declared, adding, “as is the possession of atomic weapons.”
Veterans for Peace has moved its weekly demonstration from the busy intersection of St. Francis Drive and Cerrillos Road to where West Alameda and Guadalupe streets meet in downtown Santa Fe. That’s where LANL is leasing an office building it plans to use for meeting space and public outreach.
Even though LANL has said no research and development for weapons will take place in Santa Fe, Mayers, retired from the Marine Corps Reserve at the rank of major, says the fact remains that 75% of LANL’s budget is dedicated to doing exactly that.
“I’m sure people working in those buildings are very nice people, but the fact remains they are engaged in an evil enterprise,” he said.
LANL’s new building is across the street from the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe, one of 93 parishes that make up the Archdiocese of Santa Fe.
The juxtaposition is not lost on Archbishop John Wester of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe.
“Santa Fe is a city that symbolizes peace. So I think it’s a contradiction for this opening up 100 yards from the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe,” said Wester, who believes the church has a “moral responsibility” to weigh in on the work done at the lab.
He noted that many employees at Los Alamos and Sandia national labs are Catholic.
“I think the Catholic diocese of Santa Fe has a moral responsibility to engage in the conversation as these labs are in the area. We can’t ignore it or pretend in doesn’t exist,” he said.
Sounding the alarm
The dozen or so peace activists who regularly shout their warning from street corners at the weekly demonstrations aren’t the only ones sounding the alarm.
The Los Alamos Study Group is renting billboards on Interstate 40 greeting travelers coming into New Mexico from Texas and two signs on I-40 in Bernalillo facing both directions on I-25 that decry LANL’s pit mission.
One billboard says, “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.
“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.”
Mello thinks the message his group is sending has gotten lost amid the pandemic and social, economic and environmental crises that dominate the news.
“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.”
Another message heard over the airwaves around Santa Fe in recent weeks urges people to call the Governor’s Office to express opposition to a DOE application to expand the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad, where radioactive waste from LANL is shipped and stored underground.
“We are not the nation’s nuclear toilet,” the ad played on local radio stations says.
Cindy Weehler, of Eldorado, 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.
“It’s something that our neighbors should know about, and they don’t know,” she said.
LANL 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 at LANL.
“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 to the Journal. “We expect, and will continue to demand, more from them as responsible members of our communities.”
However, the statement also praised LANL for its work with state officials on COVID-19 modeling and vaccine research during the pandemic.
“New Mexico has long benefited 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.
LANL’s most recent economic impact statement highlights the $413 million it spent with New Mexico small businesses in 2020 and says that salaries totaling $1.2 billion were paid to state residents that year.
City government officials have rolled out the welcome mat for LANL, noting the well-paying jobs it will bring, its potential economic impact and the scientific work performed at the lab that doesn’t have anything to do with nuclear weapons.
“We’ve seen how LANL is using the lab’s supercomputer capabilities to provide important health policy support during COVID,” business-minded Mayor Alan Webber, who made millions as co-founder of the business trade magazine Fast Company, said in a statement to the Journal. “As we move out of COVID, having 500 new jobs in Santa Fe will add to our recovery. Importantly, we’ll also see more long-term entrepreneurial connections between LANL and the Santa Fe startup community.”
Local chambers of commerce chimed in with support, their comments included in a LANL news release announcing two of the new leases.
“Having two major office buildings fully occupied promises to strengthen the Santa Fe economy and anchor the St. Michael’s commercial corridor,” said Bridget Dixson, president and CEO of the Santa Fe Chamber of Commerce.
David Fresquez, president of the Santa Fe Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, said LANL’s presence would “diversify our city’s economy and is a natural fit.”
But some local leaders say LANL doesn’t belong in Santa Fe.
“I don’t like LANL moving to Santa Fe, and I do not want any nuclear weapons work done in Santa Fe County,” said Anna Hansen, a Santa Fe County commissioner and longtime critic of nuclear proliferation. “We don’t need nuclear weapons. We need more diplomacy and communication.”
Hansen worked for Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety in the 1990s when it successfully sued the Department of Energy over Clean Air Act violations at LANL.
She continues to be critical of the lab over its environmental and safety record.
“What really needs to be addressed is cleanup,” she said. “We have unlined waste from 70 years ago that needs to be cleaned up – and I mean cleaned up, not capped and covered.”
City Councilor Renee Villarreal would also like to see cleanup efforts at LANL accelerated and pointed out that LANL’s expansion into Santa Fe wouldn’t be happening if not for pit production.
“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.”
Making a statement
Coghlan of Nuclear Watch New Mexico holds out some hope that the budget announcement will elevate concern about the worth of plutonium pit production.
That coupled with an coming cost estimate for construction of the plutonium pit processing facility at the Savannah River Site, which he said may be more than double what was originally projected, could ignite debate and influence decision-making about the scope of the weapons core overhaul.
“It may have a boomerang effect on LANL. If costs explode, there might be more congressional questioning of that,” he said.
But Coghlan expects New Mexico’s congressional delegation to continue to do what it’s always done.
“New Mexico’s delegation has always been enthralled with nuclear weapons programs, going back to the 1950s,” he said. “It’s really questionable who the New Mexico delegation truly represents when they have so consistently supported the interests of the DOE and nuclear weapons programs in this state.”
The offices of the state’s Democratic delegation were each contacted separately for this story. They were each asked whether they supported increased weapons production at LANL, were in favor of a new environmental analysis to be conducted at the site before pit production and what assurances they could give constituents about legacy waste cleanup. They were also each asked, given the pope’s remarks about the immorality of possessing weapons, how they balance the economic benefits LANL brings with the fact that it builds weapons of mass destruction.
Instead, the delegation responded with a joint statement:
“Los Alamos National Laboratory employs the best and brightest minds in the nation and plays an essential role in America’s national security – including keeping the nation’s nuclear stockpile safe and secure and supporting nonproliferation efforts around the world. It is paramount that the Department of Energy and its contractors carry out this mission with the highest standards of security and safety in operating its laboratories. LANL’s clean-up program must have sufficient resources to ensure all planned restoration and protection efforts remain on schedule and critical milestones are met. We will continue to support LANL’s workers and mission and advocate for waste clean up to remain a top funding priority for DOE during the appropriations process.”
The statement was signed by U.S. Sens. Martin Heinrich and Ben Ray Luján and U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez.