Courting the Bomb

The Bush administration’s new nuclear bomb factory is looking for a home — and the leaders of Carlsbad, New Mexico, are determined to give it one.

  • Carlsbad spent years wooing the Atomic Energy Commission and the DOE to bring the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant to New Mexico

  • A worker holds a button of pure plutonium at the Rocky Flats plant, circa 1973

  • "Here, the number-one issue is jobs, the number-two issue is jobs, and the number-three issue is jobs." Bob Forrest, Carlsbad mayor

  • Works Progress Administration commissioned this poster promoting Carlsbad Caverns in 1939

  • An ad in the 1892 Eddy County Citizen promoted the Pecos Valley's climate as "superior in some respects to that of Southern California"

  • A "transuranic package transporter" hauls radioactive waste to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad

  • Demonstrators at the Pojoaque Pueblo in northern New Mexico hold signs in Spanish protesting the modern pit facility

  • "I grew up listening to the stories about killing. I hate to see ... another place built for the production of things which can kill humans." Gosia Allison-Kosior native of Poland and Carlsbad resident

  • "There's a great deal of fear and intimidation here - if you work for the city, you'd better be careful (what you say). If you have a business, you'd better be careful." Gene Harbaugh, pit facilty opponent


CARLSBAD, N.M. — On the southeastern border of New Mexico, just shy of the flat, bleached collarbone of west Texas, summer is a furious season. The pale sky glares down like a hot sheet of aluminum; on the edge of this small city, the Chihuahuan Desert bares its teeth. Inside the studios of KCCC Carlsbad 930, the mood is growing savage, and local car-dealership owner and radio host Phil Carrell is getting a few things off his chest.

“Talking about this pit facility,” he says, his voice squeezing irritably through the station’s AM signal. “We’re going have a meeting tonight that gets input from pros, cons and fence-riders, input from the community. I notice we got a group, Citizen Action, an Albuquerque environmental group, that’s just going to come down here so they can talk about how bad this thing is.”

The “pit facility” Carrell refers to is the brainchild of the U.S. Department of Energy, which wants to manufacture sphere-like “pits” of plutonium — as many as 450 a year — for use in thermonuclear weapons. The pits, also known as “triggers,” are essentially fission bombs: Each pit serves as a trigger for a nuclear warhead, setting off an even more devastating fusion reaction.

Carlsbad is one of five candidate sites for the estimated $2 billion to $4 billion project, and Carrell couldn’t be more enthusiastic. He and his on-air guests, Roger Nelson of the Department of Energy and Ned Elkins of the local Department of Development, are spending their lunch hour agreeing on the many advantages of the pit facility. It would bring more than 1,000 much-needed jobs to Carlsbad, they say, and allow their city to play an important role in national defense. They reassure their listeners that the facility would be safe and, in Nelson’s words, require no more than “a couple of garden hoses” of water to operate.

No one mentions that the pit facility could have national, and possibly international, impacts, and that those effects might not be so rosy. The project is part of a radical shift in the nation’s nuclear policy, one that some observers say could kick off a new arms race.

This possible fallout isn’t important to Carrell. To him — and to many of Carlsbad’s 25,000 residents — the pit facility is an emphatically local issue, and very few of us “outsiders” should have anything to say about it.

“The big againsters have always come from Santa Fe and Albuquerque,” fumes Carrell. “They don’t have nothing to do with Carlsbad. This Sue Dayton, co-founder of Citizen Action. What business is it of hers, in Albuquerque, what we do in Carlsbad?”

He interrupts himself. “Roger, you look like you’re sitting on the edge of your chair. You’ve got to tell me something.” “I’m always on the edge of my chair when you’re talking, Phil,” says Nelson of the Energy Department, laughing weakly. “You never know what’s going to come up next.”

The city of Carlsbad has always gotten by on hustle. In the 1890s, when there were barely 300 people in this stretch of the Pecos River Valley, advertisers in the Eddy County Citizen promised prospective settlers “The Finest System of Irrigating Canals on the Continent … A climate equal in every respect, and superior in some respects, to that of Southern California … No drouth, no floods, no blizzards, no fogs, no cyclones, no hail-storms, no thunder-storms, no hot winds, no northers, no winter rains, no grass-hoppers, no bed bugs, no malaria, no epidemic diseases, no prairie fires, no snakes, no sunstrokes.”

Floods, overgrazing, and more than a little hot wind and sunstroke soon emptied these promises, but Carlsbad was undaunted. “People here are survivors, they live close to the bone,” says local historian and Carlsbad native Jed Howard. “They tend to be willing to do things that other people would say no to.”

Carlsbad promoters soon found temporary deliverance underground. In 1901, a teenage cowboy began exploring a wondrous cave a few miles south of the city; persistent local officials helped turn it into the much-ballyhooed Carlsbad Caverns National Park. In the 1920s, geologists scouring the Permian Basin for oil hit potash in the Carlsbad area. The potassium-rich fertilizer ingredient became the city’s main moneymaker until the industry busted in the late 1960s.

In 1970, Walter Gerrells became mayor, and during his 16 years in office he recast Carlsbad as a retirement community. A brochure from the era recalls the city’s early boosters: “If you want to live in a place that has a year around mild and healthful climate, where the sun shines 340 days a year and you can fish and play golf 12 months a year … you should consider Carlsbad, New Mexico.” Some retirees came, but Gerrells also discovered other riches; once again, they lay underground.

In the early 1970s, the federal government wanted to build an underground storage site for defense-related nuclear waste, but a proposed site in Kansas had been spiked by local opposition. New Mexico State Sen. Joe Gant Jr. thought the salt caverns around Carlsbad would be the perfect place to store the waste. He sold the idea to Gerrells and other local officials, and together they did the unthinkable: They contacted the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) — since absorbed into the Department of Energy — and volunteered to play host to the nation’s first underground nuclear waste dump.

“The AEC people almost fainted when they got a phone call saying we might be interested in that project,” current Carlsbad Mayor Bob Forrest recalled at a recent public meeting. “There wasn’t a short list (of possible locations) for the project. There wasn’t a long list for this project. There wasn’t a list at all for this project.”

Carlsbad residents weren’t entirely supportive of the idea at first, but the town remembered its nuclear history: Project Gnome in 1961 had been the first underground test of the Plowshare Program, an unsuccessful attempt to find “peaceful” uses for the bomb. Carlsbad high school rings from the era had proudly borne the atomic symbol.

Community leaders soon garnered enough backing to push ahead with the proposed Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP). For years, they plugged Carlsbad in Washington, D.C., and at the state Capitol in Santa Fe, often elbowing their way through legions of anti-WIPP activists.

Though Carlsbad was really the only option, it wasn’t always an easy sell. Jeff Neal, a third-generation Carlsbad resident and board member of the local Chamber of Commerce, remembers when officials from Westinghouse, the private company hired to manage WIPP, looked into the city’s quality of life. “Someone wanted to know if they could find a certain year, a certain chateau of wine in Carlsbad,” he says, chuckling. “We looked at each other like, ‘Well, I’ve got some Ripple out there in the truck.’ ”

Though opponents maintained that there were serious safety problems with the proposed site, located some 26 miles southeast of Carlsbad, Congress transferred 10,240 acres of Bureau of Land Management land to the Department of Energy in 1992, signaling the project’s near-final approval. On March 26, 1999, at 3:45 in the morning, almost three decades after the city had first expressed interest in the project, the first canisters of waste skirted the north edge of Carlsbad and arrived at WIPP.

Carlsbad and its hustle had prevailed.

These days, Carlsbad city officials can’t say enough good things about WIPP, and many hope the project is the harbinger of a full-scale nuclear economy. During the week of the public meeting on the modern pit facility, WIPP gets especially glowing reviews — and not just from boosters on the local radio station.

“I’d sure rather have Ph.D. waste scientists here than prostitution or blackjack,” says Mayor Forrest, who held office from 1986 to 1994 and returned to the post in March of last year. WIPP and its associated businesses have brought about 900 new jobs to Carlsbad, and many say the influx of highly educated, upper-middle-class residents has been good for the city’s schools, arts and social services.

Despite continuing controversy over WIPP — there have been two highway accidents involving waste-bearing trucks — federal officials say the site has an unparalleled safety record. Forrest calls the project the department’s “only success story.”

But the WIPP windfall won’t sustain Carlsbad forever. The Department of Energy recently announced that WIPP will finish its disposal of “legacy waste” — waste already in storage at Rocky Flats and other sites — by about 2018, more than 15 years sooner than planned. The stepped-up schedule may save the department as much as $8 billion, but to many in Carlsbad it means one thing: a future with fewer jobs.

“Here, the number-one issue is jobs, the number-two issue is jobs, and the number-three issue is jobs,” says Forrest. “If a person has a good job, the potholes won’t seem as big, and the water bill won’t be as high.”

Like his predecessor Gerrells, Forrest has pursued various types of economic development, both in and out of office. He and his wife, inspired by their son’s Down syndrome, founded a network of group homes and other facilities that now serve clients from throughout the nation. Forrest is also pushing a $10 million waterfront-development project that would include an international cave research center and could create as many as 500 jobs. But WIPP still represents more than 10 percent of the city’s economy.

Forrest says that when the Department of Energy shortened the project timeline, officials did offer Carlsbad some solace, promising to consider the city for another venture. But few in Carlsbad — or elsewhere in the country — would have imagined that the venture would have to do with building new nuclear weapons; since the end of the Cold War, national policy has focused on dismantling nukes, not building new ones.

The first detailed look at the United States’ new nuclear weapons policy came in March 2002, when the Los Angeles Times published leaked excerpts of the Bush administration’s secret Nuclear Posture Review. The Bush review is an aggressive new take on national defense, emphasizing “agility” and “flexibility” in place of the more rigid standards set by international treaties and agreements. It also calls for a “revitalized nuclear weapons complex,” including a modern pit facility.

The pit facility might do more than refurbish older existing weapons. With the approval of Congress, it could eventually manufacture “usable” weapons such as “bunker-busters” — intended to destroy underground targets — and low-yield bombs, nicknamed “mini-nukes.”

The Nuclear Posture Review is steeped in the post-Sept. 11 world, but the idea for a modern pit facility isn’t all that modern. Since 1989, when the government shut down plutonium-trigger production at the notoriously dangerous Rocky Flats facility near Denver, some official voices have been calling for a new pit facility; now, those voices hold sway in the White House.

Though the Los Alamos National Laboratory in northern New Mexico plans to produce 10 to 20 pits per year beginning in 2007 — a project with an estimated start-up cost of at least $1.5 billion — pit-facility supporters want even more. To arms-control advocates, of course, the Nuclear Posture Review is a road map to disaster. Many argue that ramping up the nation’s weapons-manufacturing capability is unnecessary: Nuclear analysts at the Natural Resources Defense Council estimate that the nation has more than 10,000 intact warheads, 5,000 pits in “strategic reserve,” and another 7,000 pits left over from dismantled warheads. What’s more, plutonium pits remain functional for at least 45 years, and possibly much longer.

Critics say that increasing this catalog of weapons via projects such as the pit facility would violate the 1970 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty — and could further destabilize the nation’s already shaky international relations.

Such arguments are very seldom heard in Carlsbad, however. Here, and in a couple of other Department of Energy-friendly towns, the implications of the Nuclear Posture Review are more straightforward: If the Bush administration wants to manufacture nuclear weapons on a scale not seen since the Cold War, it’s going to need workers — lots of well-paid workers.

“The secretary of Energy should say thanks to the community that stepped up (for WIPP),” says Mayor Forrest. “He should say, ‘We don’t even need to consider other places. You go to Carlsbad, we owe them big time.’ ”

Monday, the last day of June. Carlsbad’s discussion on the modern pit facility, long confined to city offices, downtown cafés, and the studios of KCCC, is about to unfurl in a fluorescent-lit, turquoise-upholstered meeting room at the Department of Energy’s local field office.

The National Nuclear Security Administration, the semi-autonomous nuclear-weapons agency within the Energy Department, has recently released its draft environmental impact statement on the modern pit facility. The department won’t decide on a site location until spring 2004; the new document indicates a toss-up among five candidate sites. Though there is a “no action” alternative in the draft, which Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham could select, the department’s preferred alternative is a new pit facility that would produce between 125 and 450 pits per year and open by 2018.

Last week, the department held public meetings in North Augusta, S.C., near the Savannah River weapons complex, and in Amarillo, Texas, home of the Pantex weapons assembly-disassembly facility. In both towns, a procession of local officials praised the proposal, assuring the Energy Department of a hearty welcome should their site be chosen. But in North Augusta, a demonstration by nearly 100 anti-nuclear activists dampened the go-go atmosphere, and in Amarillo, a group of ranchers and other local residents spoke passionately against the proposal. “No matter how deep you bury your head in the Panhandle sands,” one speaker told the audience, “your other end will still be exposed to nuclear radiation.”

Tonight, department officials will hear what Carlsbad has to say. The powers-that-be in Carlsbad have already worked hard to outdo their competitors. During the last series of public meetings on the proposal, held in October 2002, the city lined the streets with American flags to welcome its “special guests” from the Department of Energy. Of the 60 speakers at the October meeting, only two spoke against the proposal, and Mayor Forrest’s jubilant endorsement was twice interrupted by applause.

Over the past nine months, the hunger for jobs in Carlsbad has grown even more acute. Just this week, nearly 400 workers were laid off from one of the two remaining potash mines. Tourism has been down this year, and though oil and gas production in the immediate area is up, it remains a relatively small part of the economy.

When the seats in the Energy Department meeting room have filled with the more than 175 attendees, department representatives Jay Rose and Mike Mitchell summarize the findings of the draft environmental impact statement. The proposed facility, they say, would require about 100 million gallons of water per year — enough for 300 families — for its cooling towers. Radiation-exposure analyses estimate that the average worker in a 450 pit-per-year facility would be at risk of one fatal cancer every 4,900 years.

When the audience members get their chance to comment, most don’t spend much time talking about gallons of water or radiation-exposure statistics (though one opponent points out that, according to the Energy Department’s own statistics, a 1,000-worker facility would suffer about one fatal cancer every five years). Instead, most speakers talk about the grand issues of patriotism, national security, and the future of their community.

Staffers for New Mexico Sens. Jeff Bingaman, D, and Pete Domenici, R, state on behalf of their bosses that Carlsbad is far and away the best choice. Then, members of the town council and the Chamber of Commerce make their way up to the podium to applaud the proposal. Not a single one of Carlsbad’s 32 elected officials has ever gone on record opposing WIPP or the modern pit facility, and there are no surprises from them tonight. Even the local police chief adds his endorsement.

“The United States needs this facility, Carlsbad wants it,” says Lorraine Allen, director of the Carlsbad Department of Development. “It’s a perfect match.”

Just as Phil Carrell reported on his noontime radio show, about a dozen anti-nuclear activists have come to Carlsbad from northern New Mexico, and one by one they get their three minutes at the microphone. Penelope McMullen is a Catholic nun from the Sisters of Loretto, an order that has worked in New Mexico for more than 150 years. “How do you feel about the rest of the world seeing the United States as a rogue nation?” she wants to know. “Search for safe industry to bring into your community. You have options. You don’t have to let yourself be used to do the federal government’s illegal work.”

Sue Dayton of Citizen Action shows the audience a set of poster-sized, black-and-white photographs of bomb victims in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan.

Referring to the Energy Department presentation that started the meeting, she says, “Not anyplace on these overheads are we talking about usable nuclear weapons. Yet that is the path our country is taking.” The audience squirms silently.

But here’s what official Carlsbad doesn’t want to admit: Not every “againster” is an out-of-towner. Six Carlsbad residents speak against the facility this evening, several from the modestly named opposition group Citizens With Questions.

Dean DeSelms, a retired Lutheran pastor who led a congregation in Carlsbad for more than a decade, gently points out that “the economic issue is a very selfish issue for us.” Betty Richards, the managerof an RV park on the edge of Carlsbad, sings a takeoff on “It Ain’t Necessarily So” that ends, “We are not willing/ to profit from killing/ Bomb factories are morally wrong.”

Then Amzie Yoder, a retired Mennonite minister who worked in Latin America for most of his adult life and has lived in Carlsbad for the last six years, gets his chance to speak. “I hope that many of you who said, ‘We are for it,’ don’t exclude those of us as people of Carlsbad, too,” he says. “We are also ‘we.’” The evening’s last speaker is Gosia Allison-Kosior, a native of Poland who has lived in Carlsbad since 1998. Her parents and grandparents lived through World War II, she says, and “I grew up listening to the stories about killing.

“I love this place, and I hate to see in Carlsbad, in New Mexico, in U.S., or anywhere in the world, another place built for the production of things which can kill humans.”

With that, the hearing ends, and the remaining audience members straggle out into the warm, star-filled desert night.

In the week that follows the Carlsbad meeting, it is opponents who overwhelm the public meetings in Los Alamos and Las Vegas, Nev. They pound the podiums and hold up signs and photographs, decrying plans for a “new Rocky Flats.” Last fall, the director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory said he was not interested in a production-scale pit facility, and staffers from the office of Nevada Gov. Kenny Guinn, R, have emphatically stated their opposition to a pit facility at the Nevada Test Site.

Though Los Alamos and Las Vegas may be trying to opt out of the contest, officials in Carlsbad, Amarillo, and the area surrounding the Savannah River weapons complex are still enthusiastically in the running. “You have a lot of unemployed people, communities strapped for jobs, who will take anything,” says Christopher Paine of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Then you’ve got local officials who think that lining the pork barrel with plutonium is a good way to deliver jobs to constituents.”

These provincial politics may seem just that — provincial — but their impacts may be felt far beyond their home turf. They may help determine not only where, but also when the facility gets built, since a supportive host community would allow the Energy Department to avoid long and expensive delays. Mayor Forrest likes to describe Carlsbad as “the DOE’s only friend,” and he clearly understands the difference a friend can make.

“Ultimately, the decision will be political, not technical,” says Jay Coghlan of Nuclear Watch of New Mexico. Since most technical problems can be solved with money, he says, “the (Energy Department) will go where it has the greatest political support.”

So the small city of Carlsbad could end up with a very large say over the fate of the modern pit facility. Its influence is further exaggerated because, in the top-secret world of nuclear policy-making, there are few opportunities for the public to participate. Though anyone may comment on the modern pit facility proposal, public meetings have only been held near the proposed sites and in Washington, D.C. The process has — so far — received little national attention.

Opponents of the facility say they’ve got one advantage: time. Since construction of the facility isn’t scheduled to begin until about 2010, there’s plenty of time for the broader public to learn about the project, and for national political winds to shift against it. (When an audience member at the Carlsbad hearing asks what will happen if a new administration decides to terminate the modern pit facility, Energy Department official Jay Rose smiles and laughs shortly. “Well,” he answers, “then the modern pit facility would be terminated.”)

Congress is already expressing some doubts about the administration’s nuclear posture. In July, the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development excised $326 million from the White House’s budget request for the National Nuclear Security Administration. The cuts included more than half of the $22.8 million the Bush administration had requested for planning and design work on the modern pit facility, and most of the $15 million requested for research on the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator, or “bunker-buster.”

New Mexico Sen. Pete Domenici, R, chairman of the Senate Energy and Water Development Subcommittee, has vowed to restore the funding, and the New Mexico congressional delegation uniformly supports building the pit facility in Carlsbad. But Gov. Bill Richardson, D, has not yet taken a public position on the project. Richardson, himself a former Department of Energy secretary, is likely to have a great deal of influence over the fate of the proposal.

Despite hints of high-level objections, and increasingly well-orchestrated criticism from national and regional anti-nuclear organizations, much of the everyday work against the pit facility rests with a handful of homegrown opponents. One of them is Carlsbad resident Gene Harbaugh, a retired Presbyterian minister and a founder of Citizens With Questions.

“Many people come up to me, mostly when I’m pushing a grocery cart, and thank me for what I’m doing,” he says. “Yet those same people will not speak out. There’s a great deal of fear and intimidation here — if you work for the city, you’d better be careful. If you have a business, you’d better be careful.”

Harbaugh understands why his neighbors stay quiet. Before arriving in Carlsbad in 1986, he spent a year at the American University of Beirut, hitchhiked across Africa, and became a dedicated anti-nuclear activist while studying and teaching at a Presbyterian seminary in the Midwest. Yet during his working years in Carlsbad, he kept his politics out of the pulpit, not least because many in his congregation were WIPP employees. “Unless you have some base of support, the value of your speaking out is going to be nil,” he says.

Harbaugh has little to lose, now that he’s retired, and he’s glad to speak out — even if the odds are against him. “The Energy Department is a gargantuan machine, and it’s probably going to do what it’s going to do,” he says. “But the point is not to win or succeed. The point is to bear witness to the truth, to tell what we see as the truth. If that makes people uncomfortable” — he pauses — “well, good.”

Just a few days after the public meeting, the long Independence Day weekend draws more than 10,000 people to nearby Carlsbad Caverns National Park. The massive parking lot above the caverns, a monument to the city’s talent for economic survival, is filled with cars from nearly every state in the Union.

Inside the cool, humid entrance to the cave, the crowd shuffles into the thickening twilight, peering up at the cave decorations and gripping their toddlers. Exclamations in Spanish and English float up from the twisting path below, surprising the swallows and bouncing off the limestone draperies.

It’s here, underground, that Carlsbad has so often found its salvation. Here, on the Fourth of July, you can find a cross-section of the nation that would, for better or worse, be served by the modern pit facility. It’s a nation that is — for now at least — almost completely in the dark.

Michelle Nijhuis is HCN’s contributing editor.

The following sidebar articles accompany this feature story:

- Building a new bomb factory could cause global aftershocks

- Rocky Flats, the sequel?

This story was funded with a grant from the McCune Charitable Foundation.

Modern Pit Facility Draft Environmental Impact Statement

City of Carlsbad Mayor Bob Forrest, 505-887-1191

Citizens With Questions Gene Harbaugh, [email protected]

Nuclear Watch of New Mexico

Excerpts of the Nuclear Posture Review

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