With the Trump administration’s commitment to an increasingly bloated military budget, endless wars and aggression abroad, and expanding the nuclear stockpile, it is easy to put the blame on the Republican Party. The current military and nuclear operations in New Mexico expose the full support of the Democratic Party in prioritizing military spending.
New Mexico has a long history of being the center of U.S. nuclear weapons development. It is the birthplace of the atomic bombs deployed on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and since the 1940s it has been the site of nuclear weapons development and testing. Along with other southwestern states, it was part of the major uranium mining boom that fueled nuclear weapons development during the Cold War. The region currently houses the largest stockpile of nuclear arms within the United States.
Leading the charge for the nuclear weapons industry is Republican Senator Pete Domenici. Having served thirty-six years in the U.S. Senate, Domenici was first elected in 1972 when he aggressively pushed for nuclear arms and energy development in the state. He successfully supported building the nuclear stockpile and expanding the military installations. Through his leadership, Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) greatly expanded, and Kirkland Air Force Base in Albuquerque became the primary center for storage of nuclear warheads in the country. Domenici was revered by mainstream media and analysts as the “ Michelangelo and Machiavelli” of the United States nuclear renaissance. At the same time, he was well known for his fiscal conservatism in all spheres of social spending. His signature achievement came in 2005 when he led the passage of the Energy Policy Act which secured $85 billion in subsidies for all energy sectors including $13 billion for nuclear development.
Domenici also established New Mexico as host to several nuclear waste disposal sites including the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in southern New Mexico which was the site of one of the nation’s largest nuclear contamination disasters in 2014. Equally troubling was his work to have “Area G” set up just a few miles outside of Santa Fe. It is the largest nuclear waste disposal site in the nation and now contains 1.4 million 55-gallon drums of nuclear waste.
Leaders of New Mexico’s Democratic Party have fully supported the expansion of nuclear weapons industry. U. S. Senators Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich as well as Representatives Ben Ray Lujan and Michele Lujan Grisham (now the Democratic nominee for governor) have worked hard to pave the way for military contractors to expand operations.
The clearest example of their complicity came when Lisa Gordon Hagerty — the new administrator of the National Security Administration (NNSA) — declared at a Congressional hearing that she intended to make pit production the “number one priority” in modernizing the NNSA infrastructure. Plutonium pits — roughly the size of a softball — are the fission cores that trigger nuclear weapons. Currently, the U.S. has approximately 23,000 pits. About 12,000 are inside of nuclear warheads or ready to be placed in one.
LANL has traditionally been the top manufacturer of plutonium pits, but Hagerty used a NNSA study to argue that the new target of producing eighty pits per year could be faster and more efficiently carried out at the Savannah River facility in South Carolina. The Trump administration agreed to move most to the pit production to republican-dominated South Carolina.
Reaction from the Democratic-dominated New Mexico delegation was instantaneous. Rather than questioning why so many more nuclear weapons needed to be armed, Martin Heinrich loudly contested the end of LANL’s monopoly over the proliferation of nuclear arms. He insisted that LANL could and would get the job done according to NNSA’s liking and that there was no need to move any of the operations. The entire Democratic Party contingent joined with the one Republican, Steve Pearce, to support measures in the appropriations bill that demanded a reassessment of the decision and called for a fairer division of pit production between the two laboratories — an excellent example of how Democrats in reality “resist” Trump.
Heinrich presents a perfect example of the alignment of both parties policies. He portends to want social justice and progressive gains and voiced opposition to U.S. intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan, calling it a foreign policy disaster, all the while continuing his support for military contractors, intervention in Libya, and for Trump’s latest sanctions on Iran.
Heinrich and Udall also pushed through a resolution last November which designates October 30 as a day to honor the contributions of workers and scientists in the nuclear development field. Heinrich vowed that he would fight for medical compensation and justice for all those who experienced health issues due to radiation exposure. A February 2018 report from the Department of Energy’s inspector general confirms that 11,000 workers at LANL have been exposed to beryllium, a carcinogenic metal which inhaled in even small amounts can cause lung disease and cancer. The laboratory failed to track this element. These extremely hazardous conditions also affect Native Americans around the state. They bear the heaviest burden of radioactive waste pollution with little relief provided for lab workers or Native people.
Heinrich’s website provides a clear dedication to his support. He boasts how he secured $40 million to modernize the infrastructure at the White Sands Missile Range and nearly $18 million to make “critical upgrades” to Kirtland Air Force Base. He also won $361 million to fund plutonium research at LANL. Meanwhile, a significant percentage of his state’s population struggles to gain decent health care, education, food, clean drinking water and a living wage.
The New Mexico delegation states that their support for nuclear development is to bring industry to the state and create jobs for the people. While the nuclear industry brings wealth to a handful of investors, there is nothing to suggest that it benefits the general population. New Mexico continues to be one of the poorest states in the country with consistently the highest unemployment rate in the country and over 60 percent of those employed working in low-wage service industries.
The complicity of both the Democrats and Republicans in the proliferation of nuclear arms shows how bankrupt “the lesser of two evils” concept is. New Mexico is a traditionally blue state, yet it continues in a cycle of constant poverty imposed by a nuclear economy. No matter how many Democrats are elected into state and congressional offices, the status quo for the vast majority of New Mexicans will remain the same. Regardless of what New Mexico politicians say in public, in private they all represent the same interests of capital.
If we are ever to see a cleaner healthier New Mexico, we must look beyond the voting booths and the two-party system of pro-military imperialists. We must reorganize society in a way that places the collective wealth in the hands of the people and plans the economy to meet the needs of the majority, not for endless war and environmental destruction.