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?”