“Nuclear Modernization” for Santa Fe? It’s the Pits!

October 11th, 2023 - by Greg Mello / Los Alamos Study Group

Organizations, Businesses Seek City Resolution
Opposing Plutonium Warhead (“Pit”) Production
Greg Mello / Los Alamos Study Group

SANTA FE, New Mexico (October 11, 2023) — Today, at noon on October 11, some of the 112 organizations, businesses, and religious institutions opposing all pit production at LANL will gather outside the Santa Fe City Hall (200 Lincoln Ave., map) to ask the City of Santa Fe to join them in formally opposing all pit production at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), as well as any further incursions of LANL into Santa Fe.

A draft resolution being studied at City Hall also asks the City to call on the New Mexico congressional delegation to:

  1. Halt all preparations for plutonium pit production at LANL, including but not limited to the “Los Alamos Plutonium Pit Production Project” (LAP4);
  2. Prioritize removal and disposal of legacy plutonium waste from LANL over production of additional nuclear waste from nuclear weapons activities, including manufacturing and preparations for manufacturing; and
  3. Decrease federal spending currently allocated for nuclear weapons activities and increase funding to support human security, community resilience, and environmental protection.

The City declared its unconditional opposition to pit production at LANL in resolutions 2003-642005-392006-104, and 2008-17, before LANL was assigned an industrial pit mission. Resolution 2005-39, in addition to opposing nuclear weapons production, also affirmed the identity of the City of Santa Fe (“The City of the Holy Faith of Saint Francis of Assisi”) as supporting nuclear disarmament and leading toward that goal pursuant to binding international law, and rejected as immoral the policy of nuclear deterrence.

Preparation for pit production is the largest US warhead-related program since the Cold War, and is slated to be by far the largest capital investment in the history of New Mexico (slide 23), dwarfing the Los Alamos portion of the Manhattan Project by an order of magnitude in constant dollars (Atomic Audit, Schwartz, p. 60; Pit Production Startup Costs By Site and Year, May 11, 2023).

Near Los Alamos, the site of the world’s first atomic explosion.

Restarting pit production, including future costs only, is expected to cost more than the entire Manhattan Project, in constant dollars (NNSA’s effort to restart plutonium warhead “pit” production will cost more than the Manhattan Project,” May 27, 2023).

Most of the cost of pit production is to be incurred at LANL, where hundreds of construction projects are expected (slide 10) and more than 4,000 permanent staff (p. 5) will be required for the round-the-clock, 7-days-per-week (pp. 4-5) crash mission, centered in LANL’s 45-year old plutonium facility.

In dollar terms, LANL is the largest nuclear weapons facility in the US, with an annual budget now exceeding $5 billion, if work for other federal agencies is included (Laboratory Tables; files). Only a small part of LANL’s budget is not related to nuclear weapons. The advent of pit production is adding the equivalent of a whole additional national laboratory to LANL.

To make more room for pit production, LANL is proposing one or more new “mini-campuses” to be built in Santa Fe or Bernalillo/Rio Rancho (“Los Alamos to metastasize as weapons mission outgrows site, Jul 17, 2023; “LANL Growth & mission support,” Kelly Beierschmitt, Jul 18, 2023; video, start at 4:45).

The last thing the world needs: Scores of new plutonium pits.

LANL leases three properties in Santa Fe already, with roughly 500 staff working there and/or in Santa Fe homes (LANL leases second office complex in Santa Fe as nuclear weapons growth pushes admin staff off “The Hill”, Mar 8, 2021). LANL envisions 3,600 staff working somewhere offsite by 2028 (p. 11), to ease congestion on-site. Some 30% of LANL staff currently work off-site, two-thirds of which telecommute (p. 6).

The regional road network serving LANL is already congested during commuting periods, as are some roads on the LANL site, even prior to the anticipated hiring of 2,000 more staff (slide 9The troubled logistics of LANL pit production: how will LANL staff and contractors get to work?, Mar 26, 2022). LANL has proposed a number of different solutions to this fundamental geographical problem. LANL’s most recent plan is the LANL Transportation Plan FY23, LA-UR-22-31888, Nov 9, 2022. Whether this latest plan will be successful is an open question.

The US Senate Armed Services Committee noted this year that the “transportation infrastructure throughput in and out of LANL is insufficient to handle the increasing construction activity, associated craft workforce increases, and continued planned staff growth” and directed NNSA to brief the committee on “options for implementing alternative transportation approaches for moving people, equipment, and material in and out of the lab” (p. 392).

In 2019, NNSA was authorized to take over the entire City-owned “Midtown”campus if chosen by the City to develop that 63-acre property (DOE/NNSA Proposal for an Innovation Campus, Midtown Santa Fe). This proposal was rejected but it shows NNSA’s willingness to invest in a Santa Fe campus.

Meanwhile, Santa Fe is plagued by high and rising housing costs — prohibitively high for most incomes (slides 41-43) — a phenomenon to which LANL’s highly-paid staff, many of whom prefer to live in Santa Fe or who cannot find housing in Los Alamos are contributing.

Median household income in Los Alamos County is three times that of neighboring Rio Arriba County and twice that of Santa Fe County (slide 38). Los Alamos County income rose 20% from 2020 to 2021, the most recent data year (slides 38, 39). In 2020, before this recent wealth growth, about one in every 7.5 households in Los Alamos had a million dollars or more in investable assets, the second-highest concentration of millionaires by county in the US (Kiplinger’s; see also this video).

LANL pit production is not at all necessary to maintain current nuclear weapons or to keep them reliable and “safe.” LANL’s pits will be “early to need” for existing weapons. A larger pit production facility, capable of supporting the entire current US arsenal or any future subset of it, is being built in South Carolina. That facility is expected to begin production in the 2036 timeframe. For additional background see “Plutonium Pit Factory at LANL: Dead End for New Mexico and the US,” Sep 27, 2023; “Toward a viable plutonium pit production plan: part 1, May 18, 2023 and part 2, Jun 9, 2023, and other materials available on our pit page, especially those featured.

According to Study Group director Greg Mello:

“The planned addition of a plutonium warhead factory to LANL poses serious problems to the region, and is entirely unnecessary from any sane perspective. The pits it would make aren’t ‘needed’ for a long time, even assuming the US retains a large arsenal, which binding international law requires the US to negotiate away. LANL’s Rube-Goldberg, Jerry-rigged pit program is driven by greed and the mistaken idea that more and different warheads will help bring peace into the world.

“Los Alamos is metastasizing into a more virulent global menace than ever, as well as an increasingly intrusive local headache.

“LANL’s expansion is among the causes of a rapid increase in local housing costs, and is dramatically adding to the congestion on our roads.

“A LANL-sponsored study at the University of New Mexico found that LANL bedroom communities were unlikely to be fiscally benefited by LANL workers. The cost of services for commuters exceeds the taxes they pay.

“LANL is a potent inequality engine. Adjacent counties have not noticeably benefited from LANL spending, as anyone can see, in person or in the data. The causes of this apartheid-like economic divide are numerous, but the reality has persisted through roughly $150 billion in LANL spending over past decades, and it will persist.

“LANL has not created economic development outside Los Alamos County, and it won’t. Pit production, and LANL expansion, will not bring economic development to the region. What it will bring is more nuclear waste, higher living costs, more congestion, moral discomfort, more inequality, and reputational damage.”

Greg Mello, Los Alamos Study Group
2901 Summit Place NE
Albuquerque, NM 87106