Nuclear Horizon An atomic economy is booming in New Mexico

Nuclear Horizon

An atomic economy is booming in New Mexico.


On April 27, Greg Mello–a tall, intense man whose natural state is vague dishevelment–was in court, watching his witness annihilate (at least in Mello’s view) the US Department of Energy’s case.

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Mello is the Harvard-educated co-founder and executive director of the Los Alamos Study Group, a nuclear disarmament advocacy organization based in Albuquerque, but with a concerted focus on the activities of Los Alamos National Laboratory. Last year, LASG sued to stop the construction of the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement (CMRR) project, a new facility at LANL designed to process–and possibly produce–plutonium-based nuclear warheads.

On this particular Wednesday, Mello’s lawyer had called Frank von Hippel, a nuclear physicist and Princeton professor, to testify against the facility–essentially a costly, heavily fortified nuclear warhead processing facility situated over a geologic fault zone (see sidebar: “Price Point”).

In his prepared testimony, Von Hippel argued the need for new warheads “has vanished”; the earthquake hazard is now “much larger” than previously thought; the last full environmental assessment of the project–completed eight years ago–is insufficient for a project whose cost has swollen from $350 million to more than $3 billion.

All of this, Von Hippel says, amounts to a more fundamental question: Does New Mexico really need to be researching and building new nuclear weapons?

Mello doesn’t think so–but says the political momentum isn’t on his side.

“New Mexico is viewed as a place with a compliant government, where nuclear contractors can get federal money,” Mello explains. “There’s no private sector demand for most of this stuff, and a great deal of it could never be licensed or permitted.”

Even so, the CMRR facility–along with its budget–has expanded virtually unheeded since it was first proposed in 1999.

“It’s terrifying,” Mello says. “It’s frightening for New Mexico, both in itself and because of what it’s not: renewable energy; investment in our housing and building stock, our infrastructure, our schools. A very tiny group of people have captured an outsize amount of attention from a political elite and are setting far too much of our agenda.”

Greg Mello of Los Alamos Study Group is challenging the lab’s new plutonium facility.

Within Santa Fe, Mello’s view is relatively common. At the LASG meetings and study sessions he hosts in the basement of a local church, attendees are routinely knowledgeable to the point of expertise. And in addition to various environmental protection and renewable energy groups, Santa Fe also hosts two other nuclear disarmament organizations, Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety and Nuclear Watch of New Mexico.

Southern New Mexico, though, is a different story. There, lawmakers and academics extol the virtues not only of nuclear research and development, but they also court uranium processing plants and waste disposal facilities with gusto–and, in some cases, financial incentives.

In fact, the morning of Von Hippel’s testimony, a collection of public officials, scientists and executives had gathered in a conference room in Hobbs, some 350 miles south of Santa Fe. They were discussing New Mexico’s future as a focal point for the new nuclear age, in which economies rely increasingly on nuclear power and entire processing industries spring up around the “uranium fuel cycle,” which begins with mining and ends with waste disposal. Every stage of that process can be monetized–and nearly every stage has commercial operations in New Mexico.

“The state currently has a stake in a lot of aspects of this cycle–the mining, the enrichment, the storage,” Mat Lueras, vice president for corporate development at Uranium Resources Inc., a mining outfit that owns 183,000 acres of uranium mineral rights in New Mexico, tells SFR. Because of that, Lueras says, URI has “seen widespread local and state support from New Mexico politicians” for its efforts to restart uranium mining.

To Daniel Fine, a research associate at New Mexico Tech and at the Center for Energy Policy in Hobbs,
such enthusiasm is simply an acknowledgment of the inevitable.

“Nuclear energy, worldwide and in the United States, has a very strong future,” Fine says. “Twenty percent of our electricity is nuclear. There’s potential planning for 50 percent more.”

In Fine’s view, New Mexico’s role in that future remains to be determined. But given what’s already here, and the gradual buildup of a nuclear fuel cycle complex in the state’s southeastern counties, a nuclear future may indeed be unavoidable. Take the beginning of the fuel cycle, for instance.

“New Mexico,” Fine says, “is the Saudi Arabia of uranium.”

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