Change is coming to Los Alamos National Laboratory — and it’s important that Northern New Mexico residents pay attention to what is happening on the Hill.

There is the nuclear laboratory’s evolving mission, with the lab expanding plutonium pit production for nuclear weapons. By 2026, LANL is being asked to build 30 pits a year; another 50 pits are supposed to be built at the Department of Energy’s Savannah River Site in South Carolina.

Expanded production means upgrades to aging buildings and equipment, with the lab’s PF-4 building, where plutonium is processed, a focus. But that’s just one part of what could be a decadelong construction binge at the nuclear facility — everything from building new parking garages, replacing aging buildings and equipment, as well as maintaining roofs and improving heating and cooling systems to create the perfect environment for the next generation of supercomputers.

Even if there were to be no plutonium pit production, the lab’s mission of stockpile stewardship of aging weapons continues, as does its work in nonproliferation, environmental cleanup and the numerous pure scientific initiatives. Because so many buildings at the lab are aging, to keep up with its work, modernization is necessary.

Along with construction work — at a price tag in the billions, once the money is awarded and spent — LANL Director Thom Mason says the lab is hiring additional workers, about 1,000 a year for the foreseeable future. Of those, about half are new, with the remainder replacing retiring scientists and other lab workers. Mason called it the biggest increase in hiring in at least 30 years, and lab officials expect the jobs boom to continue at least through 2023.

Barring a change in direction from Washington — whether because of a new president with different priorities or funding cuts — LANL is in an expansion mode.

And what does that mean to Northern New Mexico? Consider that this year, around $400 million in money spent for subcontractors has gone to New Mexico companies, also hiring because of the work. Over half the new lab hires, too, are from New Mexico, Mason said.

With other employees coming from out of state, expect a greater demand for housing. Even as Santa Fe continues to focus on building up its housing supply, more will be needed, whether in Los Alamos, nearby communities or perhaps by exploring partnerships with Native tribes. If a pueblo can build a casino, why couldn’t that same pueblo turn a vacant building into apartments? Or build new apartments from scratch?

Possibilities abound, with cooperation between lab, state, regional, tribal and municipal officials more essential than ever before.

Lab director Mason has expressed interest in a new highway to Los Alamos, something which we have said is a bad idea, given the cost of construction and potential damage to the natural world. However, could the lab work more closely with appropriate agencies to bring in alternative transit opportunities, so that more employees can leave cars and trucks behind? Reducing congestion to and from Los Alamos would benefit all involved — drivers, residents of nearby communities who breathe in exhaust fumes and lab officials who want workers to arrive rested and ready to produce. The solution should not be putting more cars on the road, even as additional workers are commuting.

Other important investments are taking place in institutes of higher education, with University of New Mexico-Los Alamos, for example, making it easier for potential mechanical engineers to receive four-year degrees through distance learning. One workforce development initiative involves Northern New Mexico College, which now offers a two-year program to train radiological control technicians. The lab needs more machinists, with a program at Central New Mexico Community College.

Continuing the various initiatives, of course, will require greater communication.

The laboratory, given its classified missions and mysterious beginnings as a top-secret project in World War II, is used to going it alone. That’s why it was refreshing to see lab officials outline the projected growth of the next decade to construction companies last summer. The potential investment is $5 billion over five years and $13 billion over the next decade. While critics rightly point out these aren’t necessarily long-term jobs, they do have the potential to keep workers going full-tilt for years, bringing stability to an industry that has faced its share of ups and downs.

By keeping potential contractors, workers and area governments informed, LANL can make it more likely for whatever work does occur to involve New Mexico companies, employ locals and keep money in the regional economy. Ties that have grown frayed at times between the Hill and the region can be strengthened.

As Mason said in a recent interview, “The Hill is not an island, but sometimes it feels like it is. I don’t think we’re going to be successful if we take that view.”

And success in Los Alamos, as it happens, should be shared so the entire region thrives.

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(5) comments

Khal Spencer

I'll not get into whether the nation needs LANL's weapons and other missions for reasons of conflict of interest, but I will concur with my friend Greg Mello on one major point, which is, how we look at economic development or lack thereof.

After decades of heavy Federal spending on bases and laboratories in New Mexico, we continue to have one of the worst educational outcomes and deepest poverty in the nation. All the bombs and rockets have not had a major effect on lifting up New Mexico. Heck, with all this high tech spending, you would think we would have reached the levels of Massachusetts or be teeming with MITs and Caltechs.

No, Federal spending has not made us great. It has instead, as I once said in Los Alamos, made us Federal funds addicts. A few years ago the Los Alamos County Council voted to demand that the DOE continue to award the lab contract as a for-profit. Why? So the Federal largesse for swimming pools and other amenities could continue. Given the state of the rest of the nation, that was just plain wrong, as I said below (and a lot of my friends in that D party stopped talking to me).

This myopic view of the lab as a pile of free cash that enables New Mexico to ignore how to really raise itself out of its widespread poverty and second to everyone educational system is wrong. If we need national security and weapons missions, that is one story. Robbing Peter to pay Paul is quite another.

Ernest Sturdevant

Nothing but another deep genuflect to the Black Hole of Boondoggelry aka LANL, masquerading as journalism from the New Mexican, is straight from the Cold Warriors Book of Flim Flam and Propaganda for Profit. The facts are that LANL's mission as a weapons production facility has been in failure since the 1990's, so why do local propagandists follow the lead of our carpetbagging delegation in DC whose behavior is more that of military contractor lobbyists than representatives and servants of the electorate? Failure of the Fourth Estate and sellouts in senators clothing, have made New Mexico a sacrifice zone to the greed and stoogery of fascist military triple dipping narcissist self exiles to the US Military/Military Contractor/LANL merry go round.(brass rings for all...hmmmm...just like in pig snouts) Ironic that concurrent with LANL's nadir as a nuclear weapons production facility the children of New Mexico have "ascended" to front in national rankings in child poverty and lack of early education. Heck of a job, Santa Fe New Mexican, and Special Agents Lujan, Udall and Heinrich!!!

Greg Mello

The New Mexican has beautifully expressed one side of the conventional, local view about LANL and the "jobs" it has brought. To understand why LANL has brought the kind of economic development the region desperately needs one must go deeper -- and overcome our collective blindness to the absence of a viable social and environmental contract in the region and the country as a whole, and to the important role LANL plays in a globally predatory foreign policy that is eating up the U.S. from the inside. In short, this editorial reflects a provincial, colonial view that sacrifices the many, right here and right now in northern New Mexico as well as in broader terms, for the few. It is a beholden view, lacking in self-determination, self-respect, and a humane vision and values. LANL's direction and scale are for the most part decided within the uppermost echelons of the military-industrial-congressional complex, as Eisenhower's original draft named the creature, in which the self-interested LANL contractor sits in many meetings -- including, at the start of the Trump Administration, at the cabinet table. Those upper-echelon positions are occupied by neoconservatives, the occasional liberal hawks, revolving-door military and lab alumni, even active employees on "change-of-station assignments." Theirs are the values and directions the New Mexican suggests we salute. They consider the welfare of New Mexicans only to the extent they have to. I am in Washington now, and to all involved here, including to a great extent our own delegation who is in thrall to these force, very little thinking is expended about what is good for New Mexico. National security, so called, absorbs almost a trillion dollars every year, more than $8,000 per U.S. household, a growing amount of which is borrowed. That sector absorbs well more than half of U.S. discretionary federal spending. Yet here in New Mexico, it is non-defense, non-nuclear federal spending that vastly outweighs defense and nuclear spending, even in counties close to Los Alamos. Federal taxes on New Mexico households and businesses to support defense spending outweigh defense spending in New Mexico. So we have a sort of "tragedy of the commons" or "prisoners dilemma" problem. "We," meaning the New Mexican and our delegation, promote spending and values that hurt everybody because they will hurt us a little bit less. Look, jobs at LANL are not like R&D or manufacturing or primary jobs in the civilian sector. They are much more like Soviet military jobs, entirely pushed from central planners, creating essentially no actual goods and services. The pay extremely well, much more than any other comparable jobs in the region, so they suck in talent like a black hole. Most important, LANL suborns the attention and loyalty of our political leadership, substituting easy but false answers to the economic, environmental, and social problems we face. Instead of real come-to-Jesus meetings that truly grapple with these problems as if our lives depended on our actions, smiling corporadoes from LANL are always there to talk about "jobs," a narrative that fits neatly into the neoliberal "economic development" nonsense that has raged through New Mexico for decades. LANL is an economic and social "upas tree," exactly as in Pushkin's fine poem of that title. Of course, clever and shallow economic development "thinkers" have learned to equate money spent with economic development, thus turning a challenging problem into a self-evident identity, sparing politicians from having to engage with the problems in any real way. After 75 years and something like $200 billion spent, an "aura of apartheid" still dominates the region, which has some of the worst human development outcomes in the entire U.S. and indeed all developed countries. You would think we could do better than to salute the promise of more nuclear weapons "jobs," with plutonium missions leading the parade.

William Craig

"Lab director Mason has expressed interest in a new highway to Los Alamos, something which we have said is a bad idea, given the cost of construction and potential damage to the natural world."

Simply upgrading and extending the existing roads (Buckman Road, etc.) along the water pipeline from Caja del Río to Otowi bridge would be a simple, inexpensive way to improve access to Los Alamos. That corridor is already lined with power lines, waterworks and primitive roads, so "damage to the natural world" would be minimal.

Khal Spencer

There are a few good reasons to build that road. One, if the lab is going to expand, it would provide a much shorter route to housing in Santa Fe. Two, if the New Mexican is worried about damage to the natural world, it should worry about the fact that a major part of the work force drives considerably out of its way (read carbon emissions) to get back and forth to Bomb Towne. Three, it would provide an additional escape route off the Hill during a natural or anthropogenic disaster. Four, if the commute to Santa Fe was cut in half, it would give a boost to the housing market down here.

But on the other hand, it would probably devastate the small business community in Pojoaque. And unless the road was made a mandatory HOV/bus facility it would continue to encourage single occupant vehicle use. As it is, LANL has quite a fleet of PoV's during business hours.

Like everything else, there is no free lunch. If you want a big national lab work force, you get the fringe benefits!

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