Controversial plans to increase plutonium pit production at Los Alamos National Laboratory have been met with mixed reactions from candidates in the race for the 3rd Congressional District.

Controversial plans to ramp up plutonium pit production at Los Alamos National Laboratory have drawn mixed support from candidates running for an open seat in the 3rd Congressional District — a shift from state leaders’ traditional bipartisan backing of the lab’s nuclear weapons program.

U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján, a Democrat who is running for the U.S. Senate, has been a stalwart supporter of the lab and the push to get it producing 30 pits — the explosive cores in warheads — by 2026. Plans also call for the Savannah River Site in South Carolina to make an additional 50 pits by 2030.

Luján is aligned with Democratic Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, who say they support the lab’s pit production because it will boost the regional economy and strengthen national defense. All three have been cautious in criticizing the lab’s environmental cleanup and worker safety issues.

But the seven Democratic candidates vying for the 3rd District seat are split on pit production, perhaps reflecting national polls that show the public has mixed opinions about the U.S. bolstering its nuclear arsenal for the stated goals of deterrence and defense.

There’s also a growing generational divide: Younger voters feel less of a need to defend against a nuclear attack than older voters, who came of age during the Cold War under the threat of nuclear annihilation, studies show.

Five Democratic candidates offered support for pit production. Most want the lab to do sufficient waste cleanup, protect workers and enhance its scientific research in other areas such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

Candidates Valerie Plame and Kyle Tisdale say they oppose expanding pit production. An ex-CIA operative, Plame said her former job was to ensure rogue nations didn’t obtain nuclear technology.

“I do not support increased plutonium pit production, as it will not enhance our national security,” Plame said. “I understand that a nuclear arsenal is an important part of our national defense strategy, but it is not incompatible with continuing counterproliferation efforts. We have more than enough nuclear weapons to defend our country.”

Los Alamos is very well placed to be a leader in counterproliferation, she said.

Opposing pit production could be politically out of step with some regional voters, who value the thousands of jobs the lab creates even if they don’t wholly approve of its nuclear programs, said Lonna Atkeson, political science professor at the University of New Mexico.

“In terms of what are people’s attitudes toward LANL — it’s always been a mixed relationship,” Atkeson said. “It doesn’t fit with our values, but we need the jobs.”

There are regional anti-nuclear groups vehemently opposed to the lab’s weapons programs, including pit production, but the larger public doesn’t seem nearly as concerned, Atkeson said, adding, “it’s not a top issue.”

The lab employs almost 13,000 people. Given the ripple effect, it creates a total of 24,000 jobs in New Mexico and injects about $3 billion into the state economy, according to a 2019 study by the University of New Mexico.

The U.S. Energy Department’s proposed budget for 2021 would bump LANL’s funding to $3.4 billion from $2.6 billion. It would almost triple funding for the lab’s plutonium operations to $845 million.

State Rep. Joseph Sanchez, a Democratic candidate and LANL electrical engineer, said his support for lab operations is absolute and unwavering because they create so many jobs and inject billions of dollars into the state economy. 

"They also contribute millions of dollars in tax revenue to the state of New Mexico and Los Alamos County," Sanchez said. 

“The laboratory has made warheads for 75 years,” said Harry Montoya, the lone Republican candidate who responded to emailed questions on pit production. “The No. 1 job of the laboratory will be their important work in keeping these weapons and the nation secure. The stockpile will be greater than before.”

Other Democratic candidates who support pit production added stipulations — namely that the lab not cut corners on cleanup. The Energy Department’s budget proposes slicing $100 million from the cleanup of LANL’s massive legacy waste generated during the Manhattan Project and Cold War.

“I call for a full environmental impact statement to ensure that any increased production can be done in a safe and environmentally responsible way, and that we follow the science … so we don’t put our communities at risk,” said Teresa Leger Fernandez, considered a front-runner by some in the Democratic primary. “We also must responsibly clean up the existing legacy of pollution and waste at Los Alamos.”

Laura Montoya, another Democrat, said she opposes any pit production that doesn’t have the necessary cleanup and safety standards to protect New Mexicans and the air, water and land.

But while she supports the lab overall and appreciates the employment it provides, she questions whether the billions of dollars that will be spent long term on pit production might be better invested in education, health care and economic development.

Marco Serna said caution is required when dealing with plutonium and uranium, but the nuclear arsenal is aging and must be modernized.

“I believe that there is no better facility or well-trained and equipped personnel than the Los Alamos National Laboratory in the country to take on this task safely,” Serna said. “I would recommend that for every warhead created, two are dismantled and removed from our nuclear arsenal.”

John Blair said he supports nuclear nonproliferation and efforts to reduce such weapons worldwide. But as long as the United States maintains a nuclear stockpile, he said, the government must ensure the weapons’ safety and reliability and replace necessary components.

“New production of plutonium pits is needed as part of this effort,” Blair said. “I’d see to it that labor and environmental safety are strictly enforced to ensure the well-being of everyone in the region.”

Udall, who will retire at the end of his term, and Heinrich have condemned the Energy Department’s proposal to cut the lab’s waste cleanup funding almost in half, which critics contend is being done partly to divert money to pit production.

But both remain steadfast in supporting the lab’s nuclear programs, contending the nation’s stockpile must be modernized to protect America from terrorists and adversaries such as China and Russia that are strengthening their first-strike capabilities.

Their support of pit production has stirred the rancor of anti-nuclear groups.

Military spending gets mostly bipartisan support in Congress, but efforts to boost nuclear weaponry and loosen arms control spur more resistance from Democrats.

Still, it’s not too surprising that New Mexico’s delegates, regardless of party, support beefing up nuclear funding that funnels money to the lab, Atkeson said.

With Los Alamos and Sandia labs, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant and military bases, New Mexico is one of the most federally funded states in the country, Atkeson said. Defense spending is its economic lifeblood, she added.

Advocating for the lab’s nuclear programs became a political blueprint both parties in New Mexico have used for decades, Atkeson said.

But will that change as younger voters who are less concerned about nuclear defense become the majority of the electorate?

A survey by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists showed support for nuclear modernization decreased with voters’ age, with only 17 percent of people 18 to 34 backing such moves. A Rand Corp. study also found millennials less interested than older voters in national security issues such as strengthening the nuclear arsenal.

Atkeson said lack of interest is different from zealous opposition. If opposition did grow, a political leader would have to champion it to create policies and legislation that curb LANL’s role in weapons production, she said.

There’s never been a New Mexico political leader who has pushed a staunch anti-nuclear agenda, nor has there been a groundswell of public opposition as seen in Nevada regarding Yucca Mountain, a proposed storage site for high-level nuclear waste, Atkeson said.

“It’s one of those issues people don’t talk about a lot,” she said. “And without a champion, how is that ever going to get on the top burner?”

(25) comments

Khal Spencer

"State Rep. Joseph Sanchez, a Democratic candidate and LANL electrical engineer, said his support for lab operations is absolute and unwavering because they create so many jobs and inject billions of dollars into the state economy. "

That's my main objection--that its a jobs program. This is about national security, not about yet another jobs program for New Mexico. As Greg Mello has repeatedly pointed out, seventy five years of massive government spending on defense programs in New Mexico has not made us best in class as far as the economy, our educational systems, or standard of living in other than a few locations. We should build pits, if we are to do so, in the location that is best suited to building pits.

As far as national security, I'll stay away from the specifics given my job description. But if it is important to have nukes (the real discussion), we need to know how to build them and have the capacity to do so. Plus, regardless of how long pits last, we can't wait till the last guy and gal who ever made one die of old age and they say "Gee, how the heck do we do this? Did they take good notes?"

I'll leave the rest of the discussion to others.

joe martinez

How does Mello or anyone measure the effect of 75 years of spending on our being best in class...or not? Compared to what? One of the constant critics who has gone to DC to protest there even claims that LANL has been bad for the economy of Northern NM. Sheesh! I go back a long long way here and I beg to differ. Spent half of my professional career away but came back home. My son is a licensed professional engineer with contracts in the area because of LANL to an extent. Grandson is about to get his master's in space engineering. I know the area. Sanchez is mentioning only part of the story. Of course he cares about national security but being a native Northern New Mexican he loves the fact that he can stay where his roots are. On a personal note, some of us trace ancestry to the late 1600s so, of course, we have an attachment to the area. Absolutely LANL is great for the economy and for education and for standard of living.

Mike Johnson

I don't know Khal, I think it unrealistic to expect the money spent at LANL will benefit much beyond Los Alamos County. Remember Los Alamos is one of the richest and most highly educated cities in America, and has the best schools in the state by far, so the money has great impact locally. You can't spread the money spent by us federal taxpayers very far without spreading it too thin, and Sandia is a small part of a huge area like ABQ, you can't expect that to lift much of the state out of the low quality educational, cultural, and economic gutter it has been in since statehood.

Mike Johnson

Joe has it correct, the other Democrats do not. #TeamSanchez

joe martinez

The usual suspects weigh in when the opportunity arises to criticize LANL. They probably get paid by the organization so they don't mind tilting at windmills. But I get a kick out of the average Joe Bagadonuts' comments. They remind me of folks in the stands at a basketball or football game. Many of them think they know more than the coach and players in the game. Jobs, jobs, jobs have been all important to me since the day I left the nest. But the pits in question are not about jobs and they are not the work of pols. DoD thru DoE wants them and they'll be built in Los Alamos or all in South Car. Neither Los Alamos nor NM define LANL's mission. Our reps have a little influence but very little in the question of national security. TLF will no doubt be our rep next year and she can continue bringing free lunch to the reservations.

alice Slater

It is shameless that politicians in New Mexico are blatantly admitting and arguing that they want to make more nuclear bombs at Los Alamos because of the jobs that the billions of dollars to fund this lethal activity would support. Just think of the tens of thousands of jobs those billions of dollars could fund in a Green New Energy Deal, which contemplates retraining old weapons makers and other destructive industrial workers for example, who labor in the oil, coal, gas, and nuclear power industries to create clean, safe, renewable energy from the sun, the wind, the tides, the heat of the earth coupled with efficiency. The jobs and tax base for the community would create much greater benefits should the shift be made. It's time to study what the opportunities are in sun-drenched New Mexico to convert from manufacturing weapons of mass destruction to the work that must be done to avoid nuclear war and catastrophic climate destruction. Has anyone done a study for the Los Alamos community? That would be a worthy use of federal funds.

joe martinez

no comment

Greg Mello

This is a good article, but I am belatedly noticing something for the first time. The lede is partly wrong, factually speaking.

It's a mistake anybody could make who hasn't been around for a while but it needs to be pointed out ASAP, and changed if possible. It's really important to change it because otherwise it helps create a dangerous myth.

In fact there was uniform bipartisan opposition to pit production at LANL a very short time ago. See https://www.lasg.org/MPF2/PitProdOpposition.html. Domenici, Bingaman, Richardson, Udall, all opposed LANL as a pit production site. None of them saw LANL as appropriate for a production mission. They all thought WIPP was a better site for such a production mission, and wrote DOE accordingly. Neither did the University of California, which ran LANL then and still partly does, want that mission.

Khal Spencer

That's how I remember it too. Keep LANL as R and D and let production facilities be built elsewhere. But I suspect to our politicians, its all about jobs, jobs, jobs.

joe martinez

no comment

Jay Coghlan

That’s brave of Valerie Plame to openly state her opposition to expanded plutonium pit production, a true “profile in courage,” especially given her former work as a CIA agent in nuclear weapons counterproliferation programs. As to Teresa Leger Fernandez calling for a full environmental impact statement on expanded pit production, she knows full well that the Department of Energy is refusing to do so (DOE incorrectly claims that an outdated 2008 study meets its legal obligations under the National Environmental Policy Act). Given that Udall, Heinrich and Lujan tacitly condone DOE’s position, Fernandez better start pushing back against t Democratic Party leadership in New Mexico if we are to believe that she means what she says.

As for Serna saying that LANL can take on “this task [expanded pit production] safely,” I suggest that he starts reading all relevant reports by the independent Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, including major nuclear safety upgrades that LANL has delayed for more than a decade. Serna should also note how LANL and DOE have repeatedly tried to kill the messenger by restricting Safety Board access to the Lab’s nuclear facilities.

As to the other candidates’ canned language about reducing nuclear weapons world-wide and maintaining stockpile reliability, three things:

1) Heinrich and Udall supported the development of the world’s first smart nuclear bomb (designated the B61-12), both for the sake of 200 jobs in New Mexico (that came straight from Udall’s mouth at a campaign fundraising event) and because it would allow the retirement of the B83 one megaton bomb. First, 200 jobs that would go to only the privileged few anyway is no way to formulate global nuclear weapons policy. Second, in a bait and switch, after getting the senators’ support for the B61-12, DOE kept the huge B83 bomb anyway!

2) The United States is currently trashing every arms control treaty, with the last one set to expire in under a year. The point is that the world is on the verge of a new arms race that will have no treaty constraints for the first time since the mid-1970’s. LANL’s expanded plutonium pit production will only help fuel that new global nuclear weapons arms race.

3) Concerning stockpile reliability, independent experts have found that pits last a century or more (they are currently 40 years old or less). At least 15,000 pits are already stored at DOE’s Pantex Plant near Amarillo, TX. There is no future pit production scheduled to maintain stockpile reliability. Instead future production will be for modified pits for speculative new-design nuclear weapons (the W87-1 and W93). These new pits can’t be tested given the current global testing moratorium, hence possibly lowering confidence in nuclear weapons reliability. Alternatively, these new modified pits could push the U.S. back into testing, which would have severe international proliferation consequences.

I urge all candidates to do more critical thinking on the important issue of expanded plutonium pit production. For Nuclear Watch New Mexico’s fact sheet, see https://nukewatch.org/newsite/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/plutonium-pit-production-fact-sheet.pdf

Jay Coghlan

Nuclear Watch New Mexico


joe martinez

no comment

Dee Finney

Without any kind of emergency preparedness plan in place, in the event of any kind of accident, the corona virus will look like a walk in the park. Nuclear weapons are a thing of the past. We have to be focusing on climate change and LANL is poised to do just that. Nuclear weapons started here , let's stop it here.

Khal Spencer

"Nuclear weapons are a thing of the past. "

I guess the North Koreans, Chinese, and Russians never got the message.

Lupe Molina

Khal, all three of those countries also got the message that cyber attacks are more to their benefit. And we spend woefully little on defending against those because we have to prop up the bureaucrats and contractors from a antiquated revolution in military affairs.

Indeed, more Americans will die from Coronavirus when all of this is over than did as a result of the Cold War or any of its proxy conflicts including Vietnam. And all of those deaths would have been preventable if we'd spent a fraction of what we did on nuclear defense towards PPE and infectious disease emergency preparation. Convert the labs into research and production of technology that we can actually sell and export. Currently, the whole facility is just a massive suck of resources. The high salaries paid, and the subsequent tax revenue they generate, don't come even remotely close to covering the costs of the program. It's a drain on this state and the whole country.

Khal Spencer

You don't need guns, guards, fences, and complex high hazard facilities to build stuff to export. What you are saying is shut the labs down and see where the money lands. If it would have landed in New Mexico, we would have a thriving private sector rather than be dependent on the goodness of Uncle Sam's checkbook.

Weapons become obsolete when they are made useless. Those other nations still have them, amazingly enough, since they did not decide they are useless. Battleships became obsolete when the Japanese naval air arm turned a bunch of ours into fish habitat and if anyone missed the message, the Japanese did it again a few days later with the Prince of Wales and Repulse.

I'd love to see the day that nukes truly become obsolete, nations turn their fissile material stockpiles into advanced reactor fuel, and agree that other forms of warfare are quite important and getting more so. But it all won't come to pass because we wish it so.

Greg Mello

Dear Khal -- It's best to not lump together all these countries as you are doing, but they do have one thing in common: they need a deterrent to US aggression and bullying. NATO's military budget is 16 times Russia's. Ours, which forms most of NATO's, is 11 times Russia's. I will send a recent paper separately on another list.

Khal Spencer

Fair enough. A real discussion would have its own full page or three to be sure. Going back to the end of WW II, the Oppenheimer discussion about whether the physics should be disseminated or not, the start of the Cold War and MAD, not to mention NATO vs. Warsaw Pact force balance, etc.

You would think that thirty years after the end of the Cold War we would be able to put more money into butter rather than guns. I'm not sure where strategic deterrence ends and guarding the rice bowl begins.

Greg Mello

Dear Dee --

Alas LANL is not poised to work on climate change or anything else like that. The skills aren't there, the conflicts of interest are too great, and the costs are too high. We proposed just such things once and worked for years here and in California to bring such about but finally, after many interviews and meetings across a few years, accepted what so many individuals at the labs and elsewhere were saying, from their deeper experience: no can do. Over the subsequent 25 years one cannot help but to ever more deeply understand that it is a bad idea to try and diversify LANL's missions, for any number of reasons.

alice Slater

Here is an article I wrote on the US Russian relationship demonstrating that is the US that has be preventing nuclear disarmament years, rejecting repeated offers from Russia starting when Truman refused Stalin's request to turn the bomb over to be put under UN control, when that new organization was formed to "end the scourge of war".https://www.commondreams.org/views/2019/08/06/hiroshima-unlearned-time-tell-truth-about-us-relations-russia-and-ban-bomb

Suzanne Schwartz

Thanks you reportimg on this issue Scott. A couple of questions. Did Kyle Tidel and Joseph Samchez attend? If so why did you choose not to include quotes from their responses?

Erich Kuerschner

The current update now includes Kyle Tisdale [sic], with no acknowledgement that it took your raising that issue to include. Rather than follow the protocol of lisitng corrections, additions, deltations at the end of an article, in the format of the NYTimes, the SFNM editorial staff has chosen to hide the editorial process, much like the FBI has done in its 302 reports on the Michael Flynn interview. VERY troubling editorial process, IMHO.

Khal Spencer

"Hi, I'm (your favorite Democratic candidate for higher ofice) and I want to eliminate thousands of the highest paying jobs in Northern New Mexico!

---said no candidate ever.

Erich Kuerschner


"Hi, I'm your favortite candidate for higher office, and all I understand about US dollar payments is the beneficial impact on recipients; the costs associated with diverting resources (especially labor) from productive to unproductive use is something I have no clue regarding!

---- said no candidate ever.

Lupe Molina

I was ready to vote for Leger Fernandez but now I am less sure. Spending this kind of money on technology to fight a non-war that ended 30 years ago is asinine. Especially while so many New Mexicans go hungry or are out of work. Stop the military industrial complex and commit to taking care of the constituents that you are vying to serve.

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