"No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main."
More than one historian has noted how
undeserved is the West’s reputation for rugged, go-it-alone
individualism. It took tremendous cooperation for American Indian
tribes, early explorers and pioneers to survive in this harsh
terrain. It took truckloads of federal tax dollars to build the
West’s modern infrastructure — its dams and irrigation
ditches, railways and highways.
The same can be said for
the West’s nuclear weapons facilities, run by the U.S.
Department of Energy. It was the federal government that, starting
in the 1940s, built the mines, mills, plants and labs that produced
the frightening weapons with which we waged the Cold War.
The federal nuclear complex transformed the West from a colonial
backwater into an "industrial, modern, technocratic, aerospace,
high-wage-earning economy," says Kevin Fernlund, a University of
Missouri historian and author of The Cold War American West. "The
Cold War nationalized the region and the people of the American
West," connecting them as never before to the rest of the
Yet as this issue’s cover story by HCN
Assistant Editor Laura Paskus shows, the nuclear labs never really
integrated into their communities. From the start, the West’s
archipelago of weapons facilities operated under a veil of secrecy.
What went on behind the razor-wire fences at Hanford, Wash., Rocky
Flats, Colo., and Los Alamos, N.M., was a matter of national
security. And while locals reveled in the jobs and swelled with
pride at the chance to serve their country, they were often unaware
of the dangers of handling and disposing of radioactive
The veil began to lift in the 1970s as the
country’s environmental consciousness awakened; it was lifted
further in the 1980s and ’90s with the end of the Cold War
and the advent of treaties limiting the use and testing of nuclear
weapons. Finally, we looked inside the weapons plants, only to find
gargantuan messes that would take billions of dollars to clean
Today, we are still working to contain these messes,
some of which have escaped the boundaries of the labs. We are also,
unfortunately, still dealing with the Energy Department’s
culture of secrecy. Nowhere is this more evident than at the Los
Alamos National Laboratory, where Manhattan Project scientists
conceived and developed the atomic bombs that ended World War II.
The state of New Mexico is struggling to get the lab to
come clean on its dirty past, and to clean up hazardous waste that
is spreading toward the Rio Grande. Yet the lab, which continues to
spend billions of federal tax dollars on weapons research,
downplays the problem and resists the state’s aggressive
It’s understandable that there will
always be some secrets at Los Alamos. What’s not
understandable is the lab’s reluctance to own up to the
mistakes of the past and to act as a good neighbor on issues where
national security is not a concern, but human and environmental
health most certainly is.
It’s time for the island
of Los Alamos to build some bridges to the mainland. Its Cold War
waste already has.