A Little Primer on Plutonium and
Poverty in New Mexico
For more than two decades, New Mexico has received more net
federal spending per capita than any other state, much of it military.
Our social and economic well-being relative to other states has declined
during this same period; income disparity in New Mexico has grown
alarmingly at the same time.
New Mexico is home to three major nuclear weapons facilities
and two major nuclear waste disposal sites. Fully 46% of U.S. nuclear
weapons spending now occurs in New Mexico. More may come.
These nuclear laboratories and related military units influence
and sometimes even fund our states government (including environmental
regulation), university research, schools, and nonprofit sector.
Despite having some 23,000 plutonium weapon cores (pits)
available, including those in 10,400 nuclear weapons, trial production
of pits has begun at Los Alamos. This production is slated to increase
to 50 pits/year and could increase to 150 pits/year - even more than
this if multiple shifts are used.
Most waste from these operations is being permanently disposed
at Los Alamos; some is stored for shipment to the Waste Isolation
Pilot Plant. Thorough cleanup of old contamination will probably never
happen, especially if dumping continues.
The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), ratified by the
U.S. in 1970 and now subscribed to by 188 nations, requires a comprehensive
test ban and complete nuclear disarmament.
Experience suggests that no major plutonium facility can be
built or long operated with impunity in the face of serious community
Questions for New Mexicans About Nuclear Weapons
Setting aside for a moment the national and global issues that
attend the subject of nuclear weapons, why should anyone in
New Mexico care about them? What a horrible subject, most people
rightly say! Dont we have far more pressing problems to
It was Trotsky who said, You may not be interested in
war, but war is interested in you. Just so, New Mexicos
nuclear weapons industry is interested in us specifically,
in our enabling silence, and in our state as a base for its
growing operations. Over the past six decades, this industry
has exerted a profound influence over our states evolving
economy, polity, society, and culture, with results that now
affect each of us. That influence is growing in a number of
Some scholars note that the influence of nuclear weapons facilities
on the politics of the states which host them far exceeds what
might be expected by the size of these facilities alone. What
are we then to make of the fact that nuclear weapons spending
now directly accounts for almost 6% of New Mexicos total
economy, 20 times more than in any other state?
Since 1981 if not also before, New Mexico has received more
net federal funds per capita each year than any other state
(except VA in 1983). According to the Tax Foundation, for every
dollar we pay in federal taxes New Mexico gets back $2.37. Such
a deal! Or is it?
If it is, why has New Mexico fallen since 1960 to near the bottom
of all states in virtually every important social and economic
indicator? Might the peculiar mission and nature of the institutions
through which so much of this money comes be an important factor?
Could our political leaders be affected through, say,
which institutions they protect and build up, and which they
allow to languish?
Novelist E. L. Doctorow, writing about the U.S. as a whole,
captures our New Mexico predicament: The bomb first was
our weapon. Then it became our diplomacy. Next it became our
economy. Now its become our culture. Weve become
the people of the bomb.
Well, have we? That is the big question that determines so much
about our future in New Mexico. We must answer it, or it will
be answered for us.
A Brief History of Pit Production
The first plutonium atomic bomb core (pit) was
made at Los Alamos in 1945 and detonated near Alamogordo on
July 16. The second core was detonated over Nagasaki, Japan
a few days later, destroying the city and 74,000 of its inhabitants.
Los Alamos continued to make all the pits for the U.S. nuclear
stockpile, first at Building D (where the Los Alamos Inn is
today) and then at DP Site (TA-21), until 1949, when the Hanford
site in WA began pit production, supplemented by Rocky Flats
in 1952. Rocky took over plutonium machining completely
in 1965. Los Alamos and Livermore continued to make pits for
nuclear testing (and possibly for the stockpile) until 1992.
In 1988 the Department of Energy (DOE) realized that the mounting
environmental, safety, and moral protest problems at Rocky
would doom the plant and issued the first of many plans to replace
it. In 1989 Rocky closed (partial cleanup is estimated
to cost $12 billion.) Since then, every new plan for a new plant
has so far been defeated by citizen protest and intervention.
Where We Stand Today
In September 2002 DOE/NNSA issued its notice of intent to prepare
an environmental impact statement (EIS) for a new pit production
facility, called the Modern Pit Facility (MPF), with a proposed
capacity of 125-450 pits/year. This facility was estimated to
cost $2-4 billion to build at one of five sites. It was to begin
production in 2019. The siting decision was expected in April
2004; as of this writing it is being held up until a plan for
the size and composition of the nuclear stockpile is submitted
Meanwhile, Los Alamos has begun trial production and is aiming
at a capacity of 50 pits/year within a few years. Lawrence Livermore
National Laboratory can also make pits if needed.
Many organizations (including ours), along with many Democrats
in Congress, have been trying to kill the MPF, with mixed success
to date. It has probably been delayed one year so far. The entire
NM delegation supports the MPF. Some Democrats are arguing that
the Los Alamos pit production capacity should be expanded by
as much as threefold to avoid building the MPF.
To End Nuclear Weapons Production
At least five proposals for a new large-scale pit factory have
been advanced by DOE since 1988. Three have been cancelled or
withdrawn, and one the proposal for a 50 pit/year capacity
at Los Alamos was delayed exactly ten years from its
original deadline by citizen opposition (led by the Los Alamos
Study Group). The fifth proposal is still looming, but in the
meantime a sixth proposal (halt opposition in NM and triple
the planned production capacity at Los Alamos) has been floated
by arms control groups.
Not since the beginning of nuclear resistance has there been
so much defeatism in the arms control community and in the major
foundations which control the direction of most work in the
field. As a result, either of the two Los Alamos pit production
plans now has a real chance of success, most likely along with not instead of the MPF, and backup capacity at
Livermore as well.
It is a moment of truth in which decades of citizen resistance
come to renewed focus. New Mexico is now the place of decision,
and we are now the ones who must decide.
Is New Mexicos Love Affair with the Atom
Linked to Economic and Social Decline?
In 2003, a Fordham University study of the overall
social health of each state ranked New Mexico dead last. We received
an F grade from the Fordham researchers in poverty,
health insurance coverage, teenage drug abuse, average weekly wages,
suicide, and high school completion.
Morgan Quinto Press ranks our education system as
the worst in the nation; from 1993 to 2004, their assessment of
the relative rank of our health care system fell precipitously from
#22 to #49 concurrent with huge growth in nuclear weapons
spending in New Mexico. New Mexico has the second highest rate of
poverty and child poverty in the nation.
From 1929 to 1960, New Mexico consistently ranked
37th or so among the states in per capita personal income. By 1970,
we had fallen to 42nd where we stayed through 1980. By 1990 we had
fallen to 48th. Whatever else one might say about them, the economic
development programs and policies of New Mexicos last 10 gubernatiorial
administrations, both Democrat and Republican, just have not been
as successful as those in other poor states.
Most ominous for the health of our society and democracy,
especially when coupled with both widespread and deep poverty, by
1997 New Mexico had achieved the third-greatest gap between rich
and poor of any state (Santa Fe New Mexican, 12/17/97).
Why? The money has been flowing in, lots of it. And we have had
the political clout. Senator Domenici is one of the most powerful
persons in the U.S. Congress. What has been the fruit of the enormous
efforts that he, Senator Anderson before him, and to a lesser extent
Senator Bingaman and others, have devoted to the weapons laboratories
and military in New Mexico? The result has been, on the whole, very
little. Will continued focus and loyalty to the federal nuclear-military
complex lift up New Mexicans? Six decades of data suggest not.
Nuclear Facilities in New Mexico
There are four nuclear weapons facilities in New
Mexico. Three are funded by the National Nuclear Security Administration
(NNSA), a quasi-independent agency within the Department of Energy
(DOE). The fourth, WIPP, is a DOE-funded nuclear waste disposal
site; DOE wants to broaden WIPPs mission to include certain
Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL)
Contractor: University of California, 9th largest defense contractor
in the U.S.
Budget: $2.22 billion: 73% nuclear weapons; 7% nonproliferation;
6% science; 4% other defense; 4% environmental cleanup
(half for other DOE/NNSA sites); 3% homeland security & related;
Mission: Design and test nuclear explosives; prototype nuclear explosive
devices and manufacture selected components; military & defense
sciences; onsite nuclear waste disposal; supporting sciences.
Sandia National Laboratories (SNL)
Contractor: Lockheed-Martin Corp., largest defense contractor in
Budget: $2.22 billion (includes branches in CA, NV, HI): 56% nuclear
weapons; 14% other military; 13% secret/unclear; 7% nonproliferation;
10% science, energy, corporate, homeland security, other.
Mission: Weaponizing nuclear bombs and warheads; testing warheads
and components and manufacturing selected components; defense, spy, & space hardware and software; supporting science and technology.
NNSA Service Center, Albuquerque
Contractor: no operating site contractor; federal site.
Budget: $584 million: 55% nuclear weapons; 30% nuclear nonproliferation;
11% other defense; 4% cleanup, science, energy.
Mission: Contract administration; frankly somewhat unclear and evolving.
Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP)
Contractor: Westinghouse TRU Solutions.
Budget: $183 million.
Mission: Defense transuranic nuclear waste disposal.