Saturday, July 7, 2012

Summer in New Mexico

Summer in New Mexico, while the monsoon brings down a few welcome drops of rain:

I've recently returned from several weeks in Andalucia, Spain, where unemployment among the general population hovers at around 25%, and where it was just announced that public employees should expect a 50% reduction in their paid work-hours; there are ~250,000 such public employees in Andalucia. At the same time, those whose income has remained unaltered by the sharp economic downturn say that they see no obvious signs of economic distress. For example, workers in the tourist industry are inclined to make such remarks. Concerning which, the Alhambra, a once ruined site now being reconstructed with money obtained from visitors, remains the number one tourist attraction in Granada. In order to tour the Alhambra, and the neighboring General Life complex, tickets should be obtained ~1 week in advance.

Andalucia is that part of southern Spain from which the (male) ancestors of today's hispano population of northern New Mexico once emigrated. These were the spanish conquistadores of the 16th century, who marched north from their base in central Mexico, in search of gold.

The Obama Administration leaked to the press its latest thoughts on further reductions in the number of US nuclear weapons; i.e., to ~1000 deployed weapons, in order to better "reflect new thinking on the role of nuclear weapons in an age of terror," according to an Associated Press report (on July 3, 2012). This would be below the number of deployed weapons, ~1550, to be reached by 2018, as agreed to last year by treaty with the Russians. The current number of US deployed nuclear weapons is 1737, while the Russians deploy 1492. No surprise that congressional Republicans are reported to be irate at word of this latest (very cautious) proposal.

Both the House Armed Services Committee, and the Senate Armed Services Committee, have passed legislation (in April) which appears to undermine the DOE/NNSA's recently announced plans to delay for 5 years the start of construction of the controversial CMRR-NF building at LANL. The DOE/NNSA plan for the US nuclear weapons program has long been to construct a new center for plutonium S&E at LANL, as well as a new center for uranium S&E at ORNL. However, current budget stringencies have caused the ~$6 billion CMRR-NF at LANL to be placed on the back-burner. This is not much of a surprise since DOE/NNSA has long said that its planned expansion at ORNL would take precedence over that at LANL, if budgetary problems were ever to intervene.

The cleanup at LANL continues, but with larger than expected numbers of shipments of nuclear TRU waste being trucked from TA-54, around the city of santa Fe, and on to the WIPP site. Meanwhile, extensive modifications of the 2005 Consent Order are being requested by LANS-LLC, and being granted by NMED, allowing a slow-down of the cleanup in other important areas at LANL. This appears to be a hallmark of the relaxed relations established between LANS-LLC and the self-described "business friendly" Gov. Susanna Martinez Administration; viz., since management of the US nuclear weapons program has now become a for-profit business; i.e., during the presidency of G. W. Bush, in mid-2006.

LANL's Water Quality Data Base, at one time available to those members of the general public wanting to check on the types and concentrations of nuclear and chemical contaminants released into the environment by LANL, and which had morphed into the RACER database, has been replaced again by the new INTELLUS system. By prior agreement between DOE/NNSA, LANL/LANS-LLC, and NMED, a publicly accessible environmental database must be maintained until the completion of the cleanup, now scheduled to take place sometime after 2015; e.g., as pointed out to me by staff at the NM Community Foundation. See for information on the the connnection between RACER/INTELLUS and LANL's unaccountable delay of ~1 year in reporting to NMED elevated levels of Cr(VI) in groundwater. Predictably, however, changes in the format of these databases have resulted in a succession of software glitches, frustrating some users and impeding easy access by the general public. 

LANL/LANS-LLC has moved its repository of documents related to the Consent Order, and to the cleanup, to the offices of the Northern New Mexico Citizens Advisory Board, in Pojoaque, NM; perhaps not the best choice of a user-friendly site. Nominally, a vehicle to facilitate public particpation in decisions related to the cleanup, the NNMCAB is in fact a DOE/NNSA/LANS-LLC dominated group, with membership biased toward local advocates for a robust and continuing LANL nuclear weapons program; i.e., a program bringing lucrative economic benefits to a significant fraction of the northern NM community.

Budgetary cutbacks at LANL, led this past spring to ~550 incentivized employee separations. More recently, LANS-LLC has eliminated ~80 of its contractor jobs (June 21, 2012.)

However, LANL prides itself on the economic benefits it brings to northern New Mexico. In 2009 LANS-LLC commissioned  UNM's Bureau of Business and Economic Research to conduct a study of LANL's economic impact. According to the BBER, LANL is the sixth-largest employer in New Mexico. Much of this economic impact (~$3 billion) is concentrated in the three northern NM counties of Los Alamos, Santa Fe, and Rio Arriba:
•           Los Alamos County receives an estimated $ 1 billion economic benefit with nearly 8,000 jobs, 5,000 of which are direct employees and contractors.
•           Santa Fe County receives an estimated $672 million economic benefit with 6,400 jobs, 2,300 of which are direct employees and contractors.
•           Rio Arriba County receives an estimated $300 million economic benefit with 3,500 jobs, 1,900 of which are direct employees and contractors.

Interestingly, the area around Granada, Spain is environmentally very similar to northern New Mexico; e.g., it is a sun-baked plateau, bordered by high mountains which are snow-capped in winter. Southern Spain also possesses a rich cultural heritage, exemplified in part by the Alhambra and the residiua of  ~400 years of muslim occupation.

New Mexico, of course, has been inhabited continuously for ~1,200 years by indigenous peoples (Pueblo cultures) with their rich traditions,  but is today a world much influenced by money tied to the US military-industrial complex, and to the nuclear weapons industry; i.e., but this is an industry in sharp decline! Perhaps as compensation, elements of the US federal government are advocating for the creation of a national nuclear weapons park, located partly at Los Alamos. As reported by the Los Alamos Monitor on June 15, 2012, "U.S. Senator Jeff Bingaman today introduced legislation that would designate Manhattan Project sites around the country as a National Historical Park. U.S. Senator Tom Udall is a cosponsor." 

Thus, a national nuclear weapons park may become New Mexico's answer to the Alhambra.

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