A defensive island

  • Paul Larmer


"No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main."
—John Donne, 1623

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 country.

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 materials.

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 up.

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 cleanup plan.

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.

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