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"Forget the Rest" blog



Critics Decry Value of Bloated ‘Labs

By Michael Coleman / Journal Washington Bureau on Sun, Aug 12, 2012

In the six months since the Department of Energy announced that a major plutonium project at Los Alamos National Laboratory would be postponed, New Mexico politicians and community leaders have done a lot of public fretting and hand wringing.

The state’s congressional delegation roundly denounced the decision to delay the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement facility and a delegation of New Mexico bigwigs — including Gov. Susana Martinez’s chief-of-staff Keith Gardner and Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce President Terri Cole — recently traveled to Washington to appeal to federal officials for reinstatement of the project. Meanwhile, New Mexico’s U.S. Senate candidates are sparring over who is best equipped to protect the billion-dollar budgets at LANL, as well as Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque.

Conventional wisdom in New Mexico political circles holds that the labs are a critical part of New Mexico’s economy and without them, the state would be devastated. There is no disputing the lab’s contribution to New Mexico’s employment overall. Sandia is the state’s sixth largest employer and LANL is the eighth. But not everyone in New Mexico views them as critical to the state’s wellbeing. In fact, some think the labs represent misplaced priorities and the worst of a bloated federal bureaucracy.

These views seem to represent a small minority of the state’s population but they’re worth considering. Some, notably Greg Mello at the Los Alamos Study Group and others, like longtime northern New Mexico activist Carol Miller, are devoted to debunking what they say is a flawed perception of the labs’ value to the state.

New Mexico is also home to a committed anti-nuclear community, reflected in the views of groups such as the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability, which has a presence in Santa Fe, and the Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety, also in Santa Fe. While these groups denounce nuclear weapons and push for more nuke cleanup money, Mello and Miller, who has run unsuccessfully for Congress, say the labs don’t even make economic sense.

“It’s simply a fact that the economic standing of the state has not tracked lab spending,” Mello recently told me. “If anything, our standing relative to other states has declined as lab spending has increased.”

Mello, a serious nuclear policy wonk, described what he calls LANL’s “shade tree effect.” He asserts that the lab attracts a lion’s share of the smartest and most ambitious people living in the poverty-ravaged Española Valley, leaving little human capital for other struggling businesses located in the shadow of Los Alamos.

“All the talent is sucked up the hill,” Mello said. “In the labor market, a too-highpercentage of people who are ambitious and educated get jobs at the lab because they pay fabulously more than anybody else.”

But aren’t big paychecks — a rarity in New Mexico — a good thing? Maybe for a select few who earn them, but not necessarily for the economy at-large, Mello argued. He contends that a lot of lab-generated income is saved or spent on tuition for Los Alamos kids who move out of state to elite universities.

Most lab scientists simply aren’t big spenders, Mello said: “They don’t even support much retail up in Los Alamos.”

Miller, who was in Washington recently for a rural health care conference, told me the billions spent at New Mexico’s labs each year would be better invested in sustainable development projects, health care advancements, business development incentives and renewable energy R&D. Mello concurs.

“It’s a disincentive to invest so much in the military and the labs,” Miller said. “… We could make much better choices.”

In separate interviews, both Mello and Miller said the current congressional delegation is “lazy.” Lab boosters argue that the labs have helped keep America safe and secure through a powerful nuclear deterrent, but these critics contend the labs provide the delegation with a convenient way to draw federal dollars to the state. Miller and Mello said they wished the delegation would be more creative.

“We haven’t seen a single creative idea from them that has been transformative for New Mexico,” Miller asserted. “They’ve taken the easy path.”

Both longtime lab observers also questioned the staggering costs of projects at either lab. The CMRR facility on hold at LANL. for example, had a price tag creeping toward $6 billion.

“How do you even build a building that costs $6 billion?” Miller asked, incredulously.

Echoing that theme, Mello said the ever-escalating costs of national defense could, ironically, make America weaker.

"Unless our trajectory is changed we are going to be unilaterally disarming and it won’t be the (anti-nuclear and peace) activists that are doing it, it will be the greed of the contractors,” Mello said. “It’s going to be impossible to continue on this path.”

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