By Roger Snodgrass | For The New Mexican
On a fateful evening two years ago, Greg Mello drove from his home in Albuquerque to Los Alamos to attend a public meeting on a nuclear construction project called the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement.
Mello listened with growing alarm as Los Alamos National Laboratory officials gave a routine description of extraordinary changes for the nuclear facility, the proposed plutonium handling-and-processing center at Los Alamos National Laboratory.
"I didn't have goose bumps -- but it was like that," said Mello, director of the Los Alamos Study Group. "It was obvious that this project was in trouble and legally vulnerable. It so vastly exceeded the project they had described in 2003 -- same place, same function, but 100 times the concrete. It was something out of Dr. Strangelove. It was absurd, and we thought others would see it that way."
It turns out that Mello was right: The design changes, the questions about safety and most of all, the increased costs, prompted nuclear weapons officials to postpone the project for at least five years when President Barack Obama released his federal budget document on Feb. 13.
Though the move has resulted in lost dollars and jobs for Northern New Mexico, the delay represented a lifetime of education and activism for Mello, an engineer by training, an environmentalist by heart.
"Without the lawsuit, the nuclear facility would have already been under construction," Mello said. "All that was lacking was a piece of legislation with the word 'construction' in it, and they would never have stopped."
Earthquake issues, rising costs
At the heart of the delay were escalating costs for the project, problems aggravated by new concerns about seismic activity in light of the nuclear accident at Japan's Fukushima plant.
The Los Alamos project costs had swelled from an original cost of $375 million to as high as $4 billion. Based on new studies about earthquake probabilities, officials described a far larger project that would require an extraordinary concrete foundation, hundreds of thousands of tons of sand and coarse aggregate, cement batch plants, a road realignment, fleets of trucks, far more structural steel, much heavier energy and water usage and added air pollution.
Among those attending the meeting, David McCoy, executive director of Citizen Action in Albuquerque, was also alarmed. "It seems to me when you are talking about excavating this large volume of material, it seems you are basically changing designs," he said during a question-and-answer period.
The environmental impacts for the huge project were analyzed in 2003, but barely updated since then despite dramatic changes in scale. To Mello, it was like someone was driving a double-trailer semi-truck loaded with nuclear bombs on an expired motorcycle driver's license. It became obvious to him that LANL, with all the changes, was not in compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act.
In the days after the meeting, Mello began searching for legal representation and within a few weeks he found Tom Hnasko, whom he had faced on the other side of the fence in a previous lawsuit. The team grew to include Lindsay Lovejoy Jr., a former assistant attorney general of the state of New Mexico with expertise in nuclear issues, and Diane Albert, a former staff member at LANL who was once a county councilor in Los Alamos, now an intellectual property lawyer in Albuquerque.
With the help of its legal team, the study group filed a lawsuit on Aug. 16, 2010, asking a federal court in Albuquerque to prohibit further work on the project until a new full-fledged environmental impact statement was done.
On Oct. 1, 2011, the Department of Energy and the National Nuclear Security Administration announced plans to prepare a supplemental analysis, an abbreviated environmental review that the study group quickly dismissed as inadequate. The defendants agreed not to begin construction until a formal record of decision was reached. That document was issued on Oct. 13.
Meanwhile, on May 23, U.S. District Judge Judith Herrera decided against intervening in the dispute while the supplemental environmental analysis was under way. Regardless of the outcome, the immediate significance of the lawsuit was that it delayed construction for another year, by which time the economy and federal budget deficits were beginning to influence nuclear weapons decisions.
Mello: The inside game
Mello, a Buddhist devotee with a lifelong mission to abolish nuclear weapons, is the first to say his role in the apparent demise of CMRR was a matter of luck and timing.
Other individuals in his own organization; his wife and operational right arm, Trish Williams-Mello; and board members Peter Neils, a folk singer and woodworker in Albuquerque; and Willem Malten, a Santa Fe baker, were especially important to what was an even more complex strategy than a dilatory legal case.
Mello, 62, was born in Ukiah, Calif. His father worked in the building industry, including a stint at Livermore National Laboratory. Greg Mello got his bachelor's degree in engineering from Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, Calif., where he developed an interest in technology policy and what he called "a strong sense of social responsibility."
He went on to earn a master's degree in urban planning as a Housing and Urban Development Fellow at Harvard University.
When he first came to Northern New Mexico, Mello lived in Los Alamos, which reminded him of Livermore. "People don't know what Los Alamos was like in the '70s, when the humanist spirit was strong, if not dominant," he said. "Little did we know that the world and that tradition was so fragile."
He became involved in various ways with the environmental movement. He worked with Bill Lumpkins, the Santa Fe architect-artist in a campaign to preserve Paseo de Peralta from becoming a four-lane road on the east side, which would have meant the demolition of the houses on the inside of the loop.
His first job in Santa Fe was as an intern with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Later, he would work as a hazardous waste inspector at the New Mexico Environment Department in Gov. Toney Anaya's administration, initiating regulatory action against Department of Energy facilities.
The strongest influence on his decision to take on disarmament as a mission, he said, were his Zen teachers, Philip Kapleau and Robert Aitken. Kapleau had been the chief court reporter at the Nuremberg and Tokyo war crimes trials. Aitken was a socialist and anarchist. They instilled "a responsibility to step forward and act ethically in the world," Mello said.
A catalyzing moment came for him with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
"I realized that the Cold War and the arms industry represented a menace to our civilization, and I recognized that it was important to speak up before the moment had passed," he said.
An informal study group opened a dialogue with the Los Alamos community. Later, Mello decided to take his savings and bankroll the Los Alamos Study Group. He rented his house and lived in the office at the corner of Grant Avenue and Catron Street in Santa Fe. In 2003, Mello and his wife moved to Albuquerque.
Financially, the Los Alamos Study Group survives from small donations and constant fundraising. In 2010, it raised $70,000 and in 2011 it raised $120,000. Gross salaries were $32,500 last year; operating expenses were $30,000 for travel, office costs and communication and $10,000 for health insurance.
"It's a white-knuckle operation," Mello said.
It is difficult to trace the cause and effect of individual actions or weigh the significance of Mello's many trips to Washington since 2006.
"It's a huge challenge, facing a large, entrenched bureaucracy, with an enormous amount of money sunk into past decisions," said Charles Perkovich, president of the Federation of American Scientists, who has a security clearance from Sandia National Laboratories.
Among other matters, his organization keeps a wary eye on nuclear weapons issues.
Perkovich is especially impressed with what he called Mello's "strange bedfellows" coalition. "Greg was able to reach out to people in the Republican camp who could see the issue as a budgetary matter," he said. "My understanding is that he was able to tap into that and things fell into place in terms of mounting national debt, and enough Republicans found that kind of argument persuasive."
For some years now, Mello has found himself up against not just a nuclear weapons laboratory but the entire nuclear weapons complex. While he was trying to stop what he considered an unnecessary boondoggle, most of the arms control and disarmament community was backing the president's decision to modernize the nuclear enterprise over the next 10 years.
Against the grain, Mello argued that the modernization program, an expanding pit-making capacity and an accelerated life extension program for much of the existing nuclear stockpile were not necessary. An ample supply of the nuclear triggers and a surplus of nuclear weapons already were on hand, he said, and there were more urgent national needs.
"We don't want to shut the laboratory down," Mello said. "We want to walk back down the limb we got ourselves out on with nuclear weapons. We don't want a nuclear facility because these missions need to be minimized, not maximized. We want the plutonium facility that is already there to be safe and no bigger than today, because we are going to need a plutonium facility for the foreseeable future."
A Washington policy analyst who follows the budget process described Mello as a one-stop resource for anyone opposed to the CMRR, or alternatively, for those simply interested in learning about the issue.
"He certainly knows a huge amount, more than anyone working against it. No one else comes close," said the analyst.
"Greg has always been one of the few people that has consistently tried to put nuclear policy in the broader context of what kind of a civilization America is becoming," said University of Chicago professor Joseph Masco, author of Nuclear Borderlands, which examines the post-Cold War culture and the phenomenon of nuclear weapons as a national fetish. The book focuses on Los Alamos and features Mello's work, among others, in encouraging the emergence in New Mexico of an anti-nuclear complex that could challenge the nuclear complex.
"In terms of his tactics and his specific long-term perspective on the social effects of the bomb on American society, Greg has made a significant contribution to a peace complex," Masco said.
Following quickly on the news that CMRR construction would be put on hold came word that LANL's budget would be $300 million less next year. Lab managers announced plans to begin a voluntary employee separation program in order to trim as many as 800 jobs -- 10 percent of the permanent workforce.
Apart from the question of nuclear disarmament, Mello said, it's a positive step from the point of view of sound government.
"There are too many nuclear weapons jobs. Los Alamos National Security, the managers and LANL are too big; people in general make too much money there," he said.
The case that Los Alamos produces economic development in Northern New Mexico has never been proven, he said. "Can you imagine what the state would look like today if our congressional delegation had worked as hard to build education as they have to protect the nuclear weapons business?"
CMRR: Key dates
1989: CMRR precursor, the Special Nuclear Materials Research and Development Center, is proposed with a budget of $380 million. At the time, it was the largest construction project in the history of Los Alamos National Laboratory
1990: Greg Mello-organized campaign with Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety derails the special nuclear materials center with public meetings, publicity and a postcard campaign to U.S. Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M.
1992-2001: Various upgrades proposed for the aging Chemistry and Metallurgy Research building.
1998: Seismic fault discovered under the old Chemistry and Metallurgy Research building. New push to replace it begins, although it continues to be used today.
1999: New CMRR project proposed.
2001: Total project cost estimated at $260 million.
2002: CMRR total project cost estimate raised to $408 million.
2002: Mello studies pit production for one semester at Princeton University.
2003: Environmental impact statement on CMRR begins.
2004: Record of decision authorizing CMRR.
2005: CMRR-NF total estimated cost increased to $567 million.
2006: Construction begins on the Radiological Utility Office Building, the first and smaller of the two CMRR buildings.
2008: U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici retires, having succeeded in saving the CMRR project from House opposition since 2003. Cost estimates now up to $2 billion.
2010: March meeting inspires Los Alamos Study Group legal intervention. Court case begins. Estimate of total CMRR cost is $3.4 billion and goes up again by the end of the year to $5.8 billion.
2011: Lawsuit dismissed, giving rise to an appeal and a new case. A House-approved provision bars funding for construction in FY 2012 and is accepted by the Senate.
2012: CMRR construction is dropped from President Barack Obama's proposed budget. Officials call it a five-year deferral that will save $1.8 billion as they study how to accomplish the plutonium storage-and-handling needs with existing facilities.