Los Alamos National Laboratory escalates plutonium core production, putting New Mexicans and the whole world at risk

New Mexico, and specifically the Los Alamos National Laboratory, have played a central role in the development of nuclear weapons in the United States. More recently, with the military buildup against Russia and China, the U.S. military has recklessly begun re-expanding its nuclear arsenal. In 2018, Trump majorly expanded the production of nuclear trigger devices, and the Biden administration has continued this trend. Production of these triggers takes place at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina and the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

The New Mexico congressional delegation, ignoring their constituents, fully supports this buildup. Los Alamos is currently developing thirty plutonium cores by 2026. With the proxy war in Ukraine, New Mexican politicians have even more vocally supported the military-industrial complex and its use of New Mexico — one of the poorest and most chronically underdeveloped states in the country — as a nuclear development and testing site. 

LANL has a long history of nuclear safety incidents. In fact, the director of Los Alamos ordered its shutdown in 2013 after a report from the U.S. government outlined the facility’s lack of infrastructure to prevent nuclear accidents that could kill workers and those living in nearby Santa Fe. More than 40 reports in just the last two decades have listed various shortcomings of the lab, many of these reports coming from U.S. government bodies.

However, in December 2022, the National Nuclear Security Administration announced that it would allow LANL to continue operating until 2028. The NNSA reviews nuclear facilities in the United States with the purpose of guiding their strategy and alignment with the U.S. military apparatus, as well as reviewing the U.S. nuclear stockpile and nuclear development. Making sure that U.S. nukes are “safe, secure, and reliable” is a “core mission” of the NNSA

“Safe, secure, and reliable” has never described Los Alamos. Yet in August 2022, the NNSA announced it would prepare a new State-Wide Environmental Impact Statement for LLNA, updating the sorely outdated last statement from 2008. The purpose of the review is purportedly to outline the crucial environmental impacts LANL has on the state of New Mexico and its plans to curb the negative effects of its nuclear production. Despite this purported act of accountability, the National Nuclear Security Administration’s Notice of Intent to prepare Los Alamos’s impact statement contains no mention of expanded plutonium core production and does not address LANL’s past history of nuclear safety incidents.

Multiple nuclear watchdogs have spoken out against the lack of accountability in the Nuclear Security Administration’s Notice of Intent and are calling upon LANL to address its push to expand plutonium core production — especially the ramifications such an expansion would have on New Mexican communities that would take the brunt of its environmental negligence.

Nuclear Watch New Mexico has challenged the need for the production of plutonium cores and their necessity for “national security interests.”

“A new programmatic environmental impact statement must analyze the need for expanded pit production to begin with, which is not clear … it is all for speculative future nuclear weapons designs that can’t be tested because of the existing global testing moratorium, thereby potentially degrading confidence in stockpile reliability. Or, perhaps worse yet, it could prompt the U.S. to resume testing, which would have severe international proliferation consequences. Finally, expanded plutonium pit production will help fuel the new nuclear arms race. Thus, a new programmatic environmental impact statement should examine whether or not expanded plutonium pit production is the U.S.’ best national security interests to begin with.”

Storage of plutonium core pits degrades local water quality in New Mexico by putting the Rio Grande and the local aquifers upon which New Mexican communities rely at risk, while also endangering the most vulnerable community members, including the large New Mexican Native population, within their “Region of Influence.” According to the Nuclear Security Administration’s 2020 Los Alamos Environmental Impact Statement Supplemental Analysis, 68 percent of those affected by LANL’s Region of Influence are minority populations. Those within the Region of Influence experience an increased risk of Non-Communicable Diseases and an increased risk for economic instability due to concurrent health issues within households. This form of environmental racism forces the worst consequences of nuclear expansion on marginalized communities, the majority of whom are low-income and already over-exploited. It benefits those who use nuclear weapons production as a for-profit business.

Nuclear expansion at LANL would further demand cumulative environmental impacts, such as the construction of new production facilities that would employ thousands of new workers who would have to commute from long distances. New roads will be needed to accommodate that influx, and the snowball effect of new facilities will cause a series of ever-expanding environmental issues. Surrounding communities — especially Indigenous Pueblos and low-income communities — near the waste sites of Los Alamos’ nuclear projects — would experience the negative public health and environmental effects.

In an interview with Liberation News, Brooke Holland, a lifelong New Mexico resident and member of the nuclear rights organization Demand Nuclear Abolition, spoke about the lack of accountability Los Alamos National Laboratory has demonstrated in the past as New Mexico’s largest nuclear weapons manufacturer: “Los Alamos does not have the necessary environmental track record to ease local New Mexicans’ fears of further local water contamination, waste production affecting local food sources of nearby marginalized communities and overconsumption of energy on an already overburdened energy grid. LANL has no plan to ease the burden of nuclear production on the communities most affected by it and has no intention to end the expansion of plutonium core pit production despite many organizations calling them to report on the real, practical effects of expansion to the public.”

Despite its clear role as a threat to all of humanity for its entire existence, the Democrat and Republican parties within the state uniformly support Los Alamos National Laboratory and its continued functioning. While some Democrats may claim to oppose nuclear warfare, they actively participate in the funneling of money and resources to the expansion of Los Alamos as an indispensable wing of the American military industrial complex. The escalation of plutonium core production and operations development at Los Alamos since the start of the war in Ukraine negatively affects the people of New Mexico by escalating the potential of disease and ecological disaster to the vulnerable working-class populations and through increasing the potential for a nuclear disaster for everyone within the state. LANL must be held accountable for its participation in the escalation of nuclear weapons and must begin a process to protect the surrounding communities from its environmental violence.

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