The return of the Nuclear West

  • Paul Larmer

  The American West has always been central to this country’s nuclear weapons program. Our vast and arid landscape is where the first nuclear bomb was developed and tested in 1945. This is where the uranium used in nuclear bombs has been mined, where the components of much of our nuclear arsenal have been designed and manufactured, and where our nuclear waste may ultimately find a resting spot.

Many of us assumed, however, that the West’s nuclear role would diminish with the end of the Cold War. We have watched weapons plants close down in Colorado, Washington and Idaho, and research budgets decline at the national laboratories in California and New Mexico.

The emerging story, we thought, was all about cleaning up the West’s contaminated weapons sites, not building new ones.

But we were wrong. In the first story in our occasional series “The West’s New Nuclear Age,” contributing editor Michelle Nijhuis looks at the Bush administration’s campaign to build a major new nuclear bomb factory — and Carlsbad, New Mexico’s determined effort to play host to the facility.

On the surface, this is a local story, about a job-hungry community looking for an economic shot in the arm from the federal government. But at a deeper level, it is about the shifting international landscape, and how the Bush administration intends to use nuclear weapons to reshape it. The plutonium pits produced at the proposed facility will power a new and more agile nuclear arsenal — including the so-called “mini-nukes” and “bunker-buster” bombs, intended to help fight the war on terrorism.

Much of the policy debate over the future of our nuclear arsenal has been hidden away, taking place out of the public’s sight. The draft environmental impact statement for the proposed bomb plant deftly avoids the question of why the country needs the new facility, hiding behind the “classified information” defense. But the West will inevitably play a key role in the development of this new generation of “usable” nuclear bombs.

We know that these bomb factories and their radioactive wastes contaminate the air and water and shorten the lives of workers and people who live downwind. And the plants are at risk for deadly accidents: At Rocky Flats, fires broke out in the production facility on more than one occasion, threatening to envelop Denver in a radioactive cloud.

What are the human health and environmental costs of plutonium pit production? How many plutonium pits do we really need to maintain our nuclear weapons? How serious are we about complying with international treaties reducing our nuclear arsenal? These questions have yet to be answered by those who are pushing for more bombs. They are questions that the West, with its past nuclear experience, must help the country address through open dialogue and public debate.

The good news is that we still have time: Construction of the new facility will not begin until 2010. It’s not too late for Westerners and other Americans to start a badly needed discussion about the nation’s nuclear future.