Kelly Beierschmitt’s piece (“LANL’s growth means opportunity for Northern New Mexico,” My View, July 4) repeats familiar fictions: LANL helps “our” region thrive, LANL’s growth is an “opportunity” and LANL’s “diverse” missions support “our” global community.

These myths invert the truth. Their purpose is to comfort the consciences of politicians and enlist their support. These myths are the same old “political heroin” (hat tip Carol Miller) that has helped keep New Mexico poor.

Beierschmitt did not mention nuclear weapons — 80 percent of what LANL does. That mission has expanded by 49 percent since last year, primarily to create a plutonium processing center and warhead core (“pit”) factory. New pits (at about $50 million apiece) are “needed” on a crash basis for the new warhead LANL’s sister lab in California is designing for the Air Force. The entire justification for the new LANL factory is to provide pits quickly. A better, safer facility is planned in South Carolina, but it won’t be ready in time to meet the artificial deadline set by Congress.

Beierschmitt is saying plutonium pits are good for our families. It’s his job to do so. At the same time, he is keeping what is planned secret. He writes in bad faith.

Readers can glean between the lines that LANL is desperate for housing, including “RV parks,” aka trailer parks. The new plutonium mission require 24/7 operations involving 4,000 people and tens of tons of plutonium. LANL’s infrastructure and nuclear waste management capacity is already overwhelmed. LANL is bursting at the seams. Is regional growth sustainable, or good? Beierschmitt assumes so.

Since 1943, LANL has spent about $130 billion. What shared prosperity and social advancement has this flood of money created? Northern New Mexico is one of the poorest regions in the U.S. and one of the worst places in the U.S. to raise a family. Los Alamos County has thrived, to be sure.

To quote one regional economist we know, “Those who think LANL has been a boon to Northern New Mexico are people for whom 70 years of data are not enough.”

LANL did provide millions of cubic feet of permanently buried nuclear waste, some contaminated groundwater, and more than 1,600 federally documented occupational deaths.

LANL benefits very few people and is a major inequality engine. Inequality is devastating — far more important in social outcomes than aggregate GDP. Corporate paternalism is not the same as a true social contract.

Local labor markets are distorted as LANL absorbs scarce talent, an internal “brain drain.” Housing markets are bid up. Scarce resources such as water and road capacity are consumed. Taxpayers in LANL bedroom communities pay for public services, often with net negative local fiscal impacts.

Even more damaging than these “deadly upas tree” — a tree that appears harmless but is poison — phenomena, LANL suborns the attention and loyalty of our political and civic leadership and provides false, self-serving answers to economic, environmental and social problems, just as we see in Beierschmitt’s piece.

Imaginations are stifled as narrative dominance becomes complete. Political and opinion leaders become unable to “think outside the labs.” Instead of coming together to truly grapple with problems, our leaders talk about LANL “jobs,” a narrative that centers our attention on LANL — not where it belongs, in our communities. In short, LANL corrupts.

And then there is the moral problem. These are weapons of mass destruction, illegal to use under several treaties. Just one of these pits would burn a whole city full of people. There was a reason Beierschmitt didn’t mention nuclear weapons.

“Without vision, the people perish.” LANL has a vision, but it centers around death, not life. Buzzwords like “innovation” are empty. Governor, what’s your plan?

Greg Mello is the executive director for the Los Alamos Study Group and a former HUD Fellow in regional development at Harvard University.

(2) comments

Khal Spencer

Jogging my memory, I seem to recall that several of our Congresscritters have jumped up and down and demanded we keep all of the pit manufacturing in New Mexico rather than share it with S. Carolina. To many pols, its nothing to do with if there is a national defense need for pits. Its instead a giant pork barrel, a self-licking ice cream cone, meant to simply perpetuate itself and bring Congressional pork to New Mexico. As Greg says, it seems some in NM are eating high on the hog and others are fighting for the scraps that fall on the floor.

We've seen what drug addiction does to individuals. I think its obvious what Pork Addiction has done to our state.

Greg Mello

Dear New Mexican -- Thanks for adding the explanatory phrase about the "upas tree." The trope is actually much richer. The fabulous Puskin poem of that name is well worth reading in this context. Thanks to Michael Oden, a regional economist at the University of Texas, for bringing up the concept.

Why however did you see fit to take out that I was a HUD Fellow in regional development specifically? That was the whole point of mentioning that otherwise trivial bit of background, which looks strange without it. The primary reason for that long-ago academic sojourn was to bring more economics to environmental debates in New Mexico. Actual economic discourse is however almost entirely missing from New Mexico public life. It has always been so. Government and this newspaper operate in a conceptual framework that ignores actual economic experience in peripheral regions such as ours. It's easier to kowtow to powerful federal forces than to think. Northern New Mexico is poor in part because too few people actually care. Economic and political inequality are in that sense self-perpetuating. If people in responsible positions cared more they would focus on the problems better. Many of our senior leaders profess to care but few actually do care enough to explore outside the mental corral created for them and which they themselves have created. Part of the problem is that political and opinion leaders who have entered the wealth-forming classes tend to look upward to the sources of wealth rather than downward to those left out, economically and politically. The system is working fine for them, thank you very much. They turn away from addressing the poverty system in all its aspects, and one of the main directions they turn toward is LANL. One regional economist of long experience remarked to me that in his view the main impediment to economic and social development in northern New Mexico -- or was it New Mexico as a whole? -- is "the failure to recognize that The Bomb was and is a mistake."

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