The Inconceivable Atomic Legacy of New Mexico

New Mexico is the "only state in the US supporting the entire cradle-to-grave nuclear economy," hosting uranium mining, nuclear weapons design and testing, the largest single arsenal of nuclear weapons, and—to the consternation of many—the country's...

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Feb 24 2014, 3:25pm

The Trinity site, New Mexico (photo via)

In 1945, the world's first nuclear weapon was detonated at the Trinity site, in New Mexico's Chihuahuan Desert. The massive blast pulled the white desert sand up into an atomic fireball, the heat transforming the granules into green glass that fell back to the desert floor.

Days before and a few hundreds miles north, the world’s first ever nuclear weapons scientists mused over whether or not the atmosphere above the test site would be incinerated by the atomic reaction, ushering in a new age of apocalyptic fear that would define the next couple of generations.

At the Trinity site, a replica of the Fat Man bomb dropped over Nagasaki (photo via)

Growing up in New Mexico, I was steeped in history. We had family trips to the Trinity site and school visits to the Bradbury Museum, in Los Alamos, where we were thrust in front of full-size replicas of the bombs that had leveled Hiroshima and Nagasaki, before being subjected to goofy museum movies about the wonders of atomic energy.

My childhood home was situated almost directly between the two primary nuclear research and development sites in the country, Sandia and Los Alamos national labs. My university sat just a few miles from the single largest nuclear weapons cache in the world. 

"In New Mexico, we live in a radioactive web," said Jennifer Richter, former University of New Mexico professor.

A former Los Alamos scientist, who requested anonymity, told me, "The US nuclear complex is either unacknowledged or considered antiquated Cold War stuff. But look at the world today—Iran and North Korea, the global investment in nuclear energy, and the meltdown in Japan. It's coming full circle, with New Mexico at the center."

And that's not just patriotic hyperbole; in his book The Nuclear Borderlands, author Joseph Masco describes New Mexico as "the only state in the US supporting the entire cradle-to-grave nuclear economy." This includes uranium mining, nuclear weapons design and testing, the largest single arsenal of nuclear weapons, and the country's only permanent depository for US military industrial nuclear waste.

An aerial view of the Los Alamos National Laboratory (photo via)

Los Alamos, the birthplace of the nuclear weapons program, is located on an isolated mesa at the base of a dormant volcano in northern New Mexico. In pre-history, these mountains provided the raw material for early weapons; Native Americans throughout the southwest would travel hundreds of miles to its craters to acquire obsidian—which, despite sounding like a Stan Lee comic book villain, is actually cooled volcanic rock—for their arrowheads and spear points.

In 1943, another techno-pilgrimage took place, this time by thousands of brilliant minds coming together to unlock the power of the atom. The "Manhattan Project" was a success, and its outgrowth—the Los Alamos National Laboratories (LANL)—remains America's premier nuclear weapons research facility, pulling in nearly $2 billion in federal funds annually. 

But in Los Alamos—the city that owes everything to the atom—the most iconic, and improbable, figure in recent history is anti-nuclear activist Ed Grothus. A former weapons maker turned nuclear abolitionist, Grothus was the owner of the atomic salvage yard known as the "Black Hole" and chaplain of the "High Church of High Technology," where the self-appointed cardinal would deliver bomb "un-worship" sermons. 

Grothus began as a weapons machinist for LANL, building "better bombs" during the golden atomic age. But in 1969, he quit his job to pursue his business and activist interests full-time, spending the rest of his years—until his death in 2009—pissing off the nuclear establishment. One time he allegedly taped "United Nations" to the side of his car and drove around the labs looking for weapons of mass destruction. In another stunt, he sent a can of corn labeled "ORGANIC PLUTONIUM" to then-President Bill Clinton. In turn, he received a visit from the Secret Service. 

"That's Ed—everything he did was a criticism of the nuclear insanity of this state," said long-time friend Bob Holmes.

Ed Grothus standing outside the Black Hole, 2004 (‪photo courtesy of the Center for Contemporary Arts, Santa Fe, NM)

In the 1950s, a good decade before he started his anti-nuclear activism, Ed opened the Black Hole, a kind of bric-a-brac shop that contained all the techno-scientific relics he'd collected during his time in the labs. Filled with Geiger counters, decommissioned bomb parts, archaic computers, and centrifuges, the place was both a playground for budding rogue scientists and a rare look inside the still highly secretive government labs.  

In 1976, Ed and his wife bought an old grocery store and put down the atomic thrift store's roots. The new Black Hole soon became a base for Ed's campaign for nuclear disarmament, the objective being to recycle all the scientific equipment for use in peaceful endeavours. 

From then until its closure in 2012, Ed's creation was a shrine to his belief that "one bomb is too many."

The fireball from the Trinity test, captured 25 milliseconds after detonation (photo via)

The nuclear madness of the Cold War began in earnest in 1943. The Trinity bomb drop was the first of 1,149 nuclear detonations by the US government, 942 of which took place within the continental US. The massive radiation released into the atmosphere during the period of nuclear proliferation has left its atomic signature on every human being, colonizing our biosphere.

Today, the dangers of nuclear fallout, atomic warfare, and radiation are all well known. But the legacy of the bomb remains complicated. 

As Souta Takashi, a Japanese American who visited the Trinity site in 2006, said, "For me, this is a solemn place. It represents death, destruction, the beginning of troubling times. But what I saw was Americans coming here, barbecuing, celebrating, laughing. It was disturbing."

US veteran Michael Guzman disagrees: "This bomb ended a war, saving hundreds of thousands of American lives," he said. "The deterrent power of our bombs means no more world wars. That is something worth celebrating."

The site is open to the public two days a year and attracts a wide range of visitors—from protesters and military veterans to amateur scientists and alien enthusiasts.

To some, the detonation of the first bomb was a disaster—opening a door that can never be closed again. To others, it was a godsend—the strongest deterrent power ever invented, the argument being that the horrors of its use make another Nagasaki or Hiroshima almost inconceivable. But while they might have been proved right—in that a nuclear Holocaust has so far been averted—we still live with the consequences of the bomb's production.

Trinity Test Site, August, 1945, graphite and radioactive charcoal on paper by Nina Elder, 2012 (image courtesy of the Center for Contemporary Arts, Santa Fe, NM)

In 1999, hundreds of people from Carlsbad, New Mexico, gathered in town to cheer on the first truck delivering barrels of deadly nuclear waste to the nearby Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP). WIPP is the America's only deep geological depository for nuclear waste, designed to house thousands of tons of the deadly material produced by the US nuclear-industrial complex.

The town of Carlsbad pushed for the development of the original WIPP site and is now lobbying the federal government to expand the project to take more than a hundred thousand tons of the worst nuclear waste in the country.

But shockingly, not everyone is in favor of living above highly radioactive discharge. "It's dumbfounding, really," said Albuquerque resident Maria Cisneros. "The idea that you would bring this kind of poison to your doorstep makes no sense."

Former Carlsbad resident Matt French disagrees: "It's simple," he said. "WIPP means money and jobs."

The material impounded at the WIPP site has a half-life of 10,000 years, bad news for any future generations who decide to go digging in the southern New Mexico desert.

To deal with this eventuality, the US Department of Energy has, since 1983, worked with linguists, anthropologists, futurists, art historians, and science-fiction writers to come up with a warning system—permanent markers for future generations, including a sign featuring a man without any hair pulling Macaulay Culkin's Home Alone face.

Unsurprisingly, the process of imagining a world 10,000 years from now has proved troublesome. Any notion of national, linguistic, technological, or cultural continuity from present day is unlikely. Meaning the waste products of our nuclear technologies force us to think about our actions today in relationship to a world that cannot possibly be conceived.

As Jennifer Richter told me, "That eternal legacy is thought-provoking, in a way that we are not trained to provoke our thoughts."

I suppose it's only fitting that New Mexico, where the atomic age began, is also the primary resting place of its excess. And at the WIPP site, New Mexico’s atomic legacy will outlive us all.

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