Every day, thousands of people from all parts of El Norte make the vertiginous drive up to Los Alamos National Laboratory. It’s a trek that generations of New Mexicans have been making, like worker ants to the queen, from the eastern edge of the great Tewa Basin to the craggy Pajarito Plateau. 

All in the pursuit of “good jobs.”

Some, inevitably, are bound for that most secretive and fortified place, Technical Area 55, the very heart of the weapons complex — home to PF-4, the lab’s plutonium handling facility, with its armed guards, concrete walls, steel doors and sporadic sirens. To enter “the plant,” as it’s known, is to get as close as possible to the existential nature of the nuclear age.

Over the next few years, the Los Alamos Plutonium Facility (PF-4) will undergo a paradigm shift to a large-scale production facility for weapon components, with the largest number of workers in its history. NNSA is investing billions of dollars in production-related infrastructure at Los Alamos, and the Board is continuing to urge commensurate investment in the safety infrastructure needed to ensure workers and the public are adequately protected from potential accidents at PF-4.

 the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board

For 40 years, some 250 workers were tasked, mostly, with research and design. But a multibillion-dollar mission to modernize the nation’s nuclear arsenal has brought about “a paradigm shift,” in the words of the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, a federal watchdog. Today, the plant is in the middle of a colossal expansion — growing from a single, aged building to what the safety board calls “a large-scale production facility for weapon components with the largest number of workers in its history.”  

In short, the plant is slated to become a factory for making plutonium pits, the essential core of every nuclear warhead. 

Four years ago, LANL began laying the groundwork for this expansion by searching out and shaping a highly trained labor pool of technicians to handle fissile materials, machine the parts for weapons, monitor radiation and remediate nuclear waste. The lab turned to the surrounding community, as it often had, tapping New Mexico’s small regional institutions — colleges that mostly serve minority and low-income students. The plan, as laid out in a senate subcommittee meeting, set forth a college-to-lab pipeline — a “workforce of the future.”

A billboard south of Española advertises the workforce pipeline program at Northern New Mexico College. Michael Benanav/Searchlight New Mexico

Taken altogether, Santa Fe Community College, Northern New Mexico College and the University of New Mexico’s Los Alamos campus are set to receive millions of federal dollars for their role in preparing and equipping that workforce. They’ve graduated 74 people to date, many of whom will end up at TA-55.

As Kelly Trujillo, associate dean of SFCC’s School of Sciences, Health, Engineering and Math, put it, “A lot of these jobs are high-paying jobs and they allow [workers] to stay in their home, in the area that they love.”

The school informs its students of the obligations and risks that come with working for LANL, Trujillo said. “We’re talking about students that may not otherwise have the means to obtain a higher education. And so, that’s the trade-off.”

The trade-off, like so much involving LANL’s history in northern New Mexico, is not without controversy. For many local families, the lab has been a gateway to the American dream. Its high wages have afforded generations of Norteños a chance at the good life — new houses, new cars, land ownership, higher education for their kids. Indeed, to work there is to become part of the region’s upper crust.

It carries a legacy of illness, death and environmental racism for countless others. History tells of a long practice of hiring local Hispano and Pueblo communities to staff some of the most dangerous positions, a practice that has its origins in the early years of the lab, as Myrriah Gómez described in her 2022 book “Nuclear Nuevo México.” 

New Mexico’s academic institutions have for decades served as LANL’s willing partner, feeding students into the weapons complex with high school internships, undergraduate student programs; graduate and postdoc programs; and apprenticeships for craft trades and technicians. The lab heavily recruits at most local colleges with the assurance of opportunities not easily found in New Mexico. 

Talavai Denipah-Cook can still remember LANL representatives plying her with promises of a high-paying job and good benefits at an American Indian Sciences and Engineering Society conference years ago. At the time, she was a student at a local high school, and the future that they painted looked bright. 

“I was like, ‘Wow, that sounds really intriguing.’ We don’t get that around here, especially as people of color,” said Denipah-Cook, now a program manager in the Environmental Health and Justice Program at Tewa Women United, an Indigenous nonprofit based in Española. 

Then she remembered the words of her grandmother, a field nurse from Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo, who once tended to Navajo Nation tribal members affected by uranium mining and saw the health impacts of radiation exposure firsthand. 

“She used to tell me, ‘Don’t ever, ever work at Los Alamos National Labs.’” 

Talavai Denipah-Cook, Environmental Health and Justice Program Manager at Tewa Women United. Michael Benanav/Searchlight New Mexico

‘The snake road’

For nearly eight decades, LANL’s repeated attempts to expand have run up against the fact of the plateau’s geography. During the Manhattan Project, the site, flanked by canyons, proved problematic in terms of housing, transportation and access along the road that old-timers called el camino de la culebra — the snake road. In more recent years, the lab’s footprint has stretched to encompass a nearly 40-square-mile campus that abuts Bandelier National Monument, U.S. Forest Service lands, the cities of Los Alamos and White Rock, and San Ildefonso Pueblo. 

One of its smallest areas, TA-55, sits at the north-central edge of campus. Within it sits “the plant” — a 233,000-square-foot building that ranks, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, as the only “fully operational, full capability plutonium facility in the nation.” 

This is where plutonium and other irradiated materials are conveyed by a trolley system that tracks from a vault to rooms lined with gloveboxes, sealed and free from oxygen. Workers, their hands protected by bulky gloves, weigh and handle plutonium in all its forms — molten, metal and powder. They disassemble and inspect existing weapons from the stockpile; forge parts for nuclear batteries that help power spacecrafts; and perfect the dimensions of plutonium “hemishells” on special hand-built machines. According to a retired machinist, each pit has to be so precisely created that the difference between it and others can vary no more than the width of a strand of hair.

Illustration by Kevin Beaty

Here, a mass of certifications and protocols are required for every task; the work leaves little margin for error. Should radiation escape its enclosure, a Radiation Control Technician stands by with a Geiger counter to detect it and stop work immediately.  

Plant employees earn an extra $20,000 of environmental pay — in order “to attract people, quite frankly, to work in our more challenging facilities,” said Stephen Schreiber, who works in weapons production as the technical director of the lab’s office of Science, Technology and Engineering. 

When Joaquin Gallegos, the former chair of NNMC’s Biology, Chemistry and Environmental Sciences Department, recruited high school students to join the college pipeline, he cited the competitive salaries and drew upon his own family history: the aunts and uncles who worked at LANL while continuing to tend multigenerational land. 

The lab “subsidized” their lifestyle and made it possible not to “sell out,” Gallegos said. “People who have 10 or 15 acres of agricultural land, that’s not enough to support a family. But if you work at the labs, you could still maintain that culture. You could still raise animals and maintain that as part of your family.”

Joaquin Gallegos, former chair of the Biology, Chemistry and Environmental Sciences Department at Northern New Mexico College. Michael Benanav/Searchlight New Mexico

Pendulum swings for pits

It’s been almost 75 years since LANL last produced plutonium pits at an industrial scale. In 1996, the lab was sanctioned, as part of a sustainment program, to produce up to 20 plutonium war reserve pits a year as needed for the W88 warhead. It produced 30 pits within a five-year period, until 2012 when all major plutonium operations were suspended, after four pieces of weapons-grade plutonium were placed side by side for a photo op — a treacherous positioning that could have caused a runaway neutron chain reaction and a flash of potentially fatal radiation. 

“The lab has never had to be accountable for their promises,” said Greg Mello, of the Los Alamos Study Group, an influential anti-nuclear nonprofit based in Albuquerque. “Could they be a factory? Could they produce pits reliably? No. Not at all.” 

LANL, regardless, was tapped as one of two sites — the other being the Savannah River plutonium processing facility in South Carolina — to produce an annual quota of “no fewer than 80 such pits by 2030,” according to the Fiscal 2020 National Defense Authorization Act. With this, LANL has been authorized to produce 30 pits per year by 2026. 

What’s being proposed is so huge it has no precedent, said Jay Coghlan, executive director of Nuclear Watch New Mexico, an anti-nuclear advocacy organization in Santa Fe. 

“Here we have this arrogant agency that thinks it can just impose expanded bomb production on New Mexico,” said Coghlan, referring to the National Nuclear Security Administration, the lead agency for pit production. “They do not have credible cost estimates and they do not have a credible plan for production. But yet they expect New Mexicans to bear the consequences.” 

The costs, according to the Los Alamos Study Group, will come to some $46 billion by 2036 — the earliest the NNSA says it can hit 80 pits per year at the two sites. It’s roughly the same amount of money it would take to rebuild every single failing bridge in America. 

To support the pit mission at LANL, the NNSA estimates the lab will need 4,100 full-time employees, including scientists and engineers, security guards, maintenance and craft workers, and “hard-to-fill positions,” as LANL has dubbed the pipeline jobs. 

More costly than the Manhattan Project in its day, the NNSA program is the most expensive in the agency’s history. It is also destined, Coghlan and others say, to collapse under its own weight. Both Los Alamos and Savannah River are, according to federal documents, billions of dollars over budget and years behind schedule.

Money, waste and risk

In the meantime, LANL’s budget has increased by 130 percent over the past five years, according to a June 2022 report by the Government Accountability Office. There’s no real way to determine how much money LANL will need to reach its quota. 

More than $20 billion is slated for paying personnel and underwriting the construction in and around TA-55, including facilities to process transuranic liquid waste — highly radioactive material that must be shipped to waste sites — as well as parking structures and office buildings; the demolition and decontamination of hundreds of old gloveboxes; and the installation of hundreds more new ones. Much of the construction is taking place at night, while staff work toward meeting LANL’s new quota by day.

“When you’re going to ramp up to different delivery rates, you need a schedule to drive the work,” said Schreiber, a technical director in weapons production. “But we have to balance that with doing it safely and controlling the risk. And we really do instill that in our workers. That’s the reason why we’d rather take 15 minutes for a pause than to forge ahead and have a problem that might set us back days, if not weeks.”

Observers at the Union of Concerned Scientists say the pace doesn’t bode well for New Mexico.

“When you have new employees who are not very experienced in a new facility running new procedures in a high-risk environment — trying to do it fast, trying to meet a quota — that’s a recipe for something bad to happen,” said Dylan Spaulding, a senior scientist in the nonprofit’s global security program. 

New Mexico’s all-Democratic congressional delegation, whatever the controversies, supports the project wholeheartedly. When asked for comments by Searchlight New Mexico, none responded. Senators Martin Heinrich and Ben Ray Luján and Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández ignored repeated requests; Rep. Gabe Vasquez and Rep. Melanie Stansbury declined to comment.

Indeed, it was Heinrich and South Carolina’s Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham who rallied behind pit production in their respective states — ushering it into law in the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act. Then-Congressman Luján helped shepherd money to the pipeline programs when he added his own amendment to underwrite schooling for technicians to work at national laboratories. 

The pipeline had already been set in motion back in 2019, when Northern New Mexico College announced a collaboration with LANL. Rick Bailey, the school’s then-president and a former command pilot in the U.S. Air Force, called it “a win-win solution for both the community and the Laboratory.”

Radiation 101: Students get prepped for pit work

Last spring, assistant professor Scott Braley taught two back-to-back introductory courses to 13 future radiation control technicians at NNMC. His lectures covered a host of topics: the history of “industrial-scale” radiation accidents worldwide, algebraic formulas to determine the correlation between individual cancer and workplace exposure, and maximum permissible doses for future workers like themselves. The rates are higher than for the general public, Braley explained, because, for one, radiation workers “have accepted a higher risk.” 

His lab next door to the classroom is equipped with three Geiger counters — one of the same models employed by LANL. Students use the instruments to detect radiation, preparing them to flag contamination in the event of a future accident. 

“So it’s not just reading the instrument and saying, `Hey, here’s a number,’ but interpreting that number for other people and understanding what safety measures have to be put in place,” Braley explained.

Scott Braley teaches radiation protection at Northern New Mexico College. Michael Benanav/Searchlight New Mexico

Once they get their associate’s degree, the newly-minted NNMC graduates proceed to the second part of their training, which takes place in a Los Alamos classroom. There, they learn how to don and doff personal protective gear — a suit not unlike the one that recent NNMC graduate Karen Padilla said she once used to keep bees. Padilla, 42, participated in simulations of scenarios that she and others might one day face, learning the proper ways to detect radiation around radioactive trash and 55-gallon barrels of waste, for instance. 

“Long-term, I don’t have really any fears about this because I feel like my instructors are doing a good job of helping me understand how to protect myself” and others, said Padilla. “I think ultimately that’s my job as a [radiation control technician], to protect people who are working, to make sure that they’re not getting into something that could be harmful to them.”

Much of the college programs and their curricula center around minimizing risk. But because the possibility of serious harm at LANL is much higher than in most jobs, the programs present an ethical dilemma: Who are the people bearing the risk? 

“What does it mean to assume that exposure is acceptable at all?” asked Eileen O’Shaughnessy, cofounder of Demand Nuclear Abolition. “Because the thing about radiation is it’s cumulative and any amount is unsafe.”

Eileen O’Shaughnessy in her office on the UNM campus. Michael Benanav/Searchlight New Mexico

Students may choose to assume the occupational risk, she said, but “inherent in that assumption is that your body is woundable.” 

Generations of northern New Mexicans have faced the same time-worn question: Are the good jobs worth the trade-offs?

“You realize, yes, they are paying you well, but you’re being put in situations that you have no idea about,” said the retired machinist, a man with over two decades of experience working at the lab, much of it at the plant. He asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation. “It’s the mentality at the lab,” he said. “They don’t really think that people that are techs are even really worth much.”

A powerful neighbor

Dueling perspectives in El Norte reveal the chasms around the lab and, in particular, what some consider the Manhattan Project’s original sin: Its use of eminent domain to force Indigenous and Hispano people off their farms and sacred lands on the Pajarito Plateau. Its arrival, oral histories hold, spelled the end of land-based living. 

“When did we stop farming to sustain ourselves?” as Kayleigh Warren recalled asking a relative from Santa Clara Pueblo. The answer: “When the labs came in.”

Now an environmental health and justice program coordinator at Tewa Women United, Warren has borne witness to the region’s change in values. The lab has so deeply carved itself into Northern New Mexico’s psyche that imagining another future — another means of survival — has come to seem impossible.

Kayleigh Warren, Environmental Health & Justice Program Coordinator at Tewa Women United. Michael Benanav/Searchlight New Mexico

As the single largest employer in northern New Mexico, LANL’s horizon of influence is vast. And with billions more dollars flooding in, its sway in almost every sphere — economics, politics, education — seems only to grow.

“It is hard for us at the Los Alamos Study Group to see how New Mexico can ever develop if LANL becomes a reliable, enduring pit factory,” said Greg Mello, the executive director. “We see it as a death sentence for economic and social development in Northern New Mexico.” 

Despite the lab’s omnipresence, economic gains have been relatively limited. While Los Alamos County has one of the highest median household incomes in the nation, the surrounding communities — including Española — are among the poorest in the state. 

The most damning indication of that disparity came in a draft report from the University of New Mexico’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research, which showed that the lab actually cost Rio Arriba County $2.6 million and Santa Fe County $2.2 million in fiscal year 2017. 

According to the Rio Grande Sun, LANL suppressed that information in the report’s final version. And though LANL jobs are by far the most competitive in the region, the trickle-down hasn’t amounted to collective uplift. 

“LANL has been a bad neighbor,” charged Warren. “If the economic benefits are so good for them to continue their work and expand, you would think the communities around here would be doing better. But we’re not.”

For more information about how LANL is preparing its future workforce, check out this sidebar:

Plutonium by degrees

Raised in the northern New Mexican village of Truchas, Alicia Inez Guzmán has written about histories of place, identity, and land use in New Mexico. She brings this knowledge to her current role at Searchlight,...