Snapshots and National Security Breaches at Los Alamos

Los Alamos, NM – The birthplace of the atomic bomb is a mere 20-miles southwest of Española, yet the two cities are worlds apart. You won’t find in Española any million-dollar homes perched atop the mesas. I haven’t met any residents in Española who hold Ph.Ds. The foods sold at the grocery stores are of different qualities. And the roads and parks in Los Alamos are pristine and well maintained while the poverty of Española is inescapable.

Residents of the two cities aren’t particularly fond of each other, but are linked by the 69-year-old Los Alamos National Laboratories, which has allowed Los Alamos to prosper and has given Española an economic lifeline, albeit a precarious one.

Española’s economy is heavily dependent on the Lab, which employs around 9,000 people total. Many residents in and around Española fill the Lab’s low-security jobs, making the Lab the largest employer of city residents. The city’s small business community is also in large part dependent on the salaries earned at the lab, not only from Rio Arriba County residents, but also the wealthy Los Alamos County residents who visit Española to dine at its restaurants or buy food from its farmers.

When the government cuts the Lab’s funding, as it has many times in recent years, it isn’t the scientists who lose their jobs, but rather those low-level workers from around here. The announcement earlier this year of massive lay-offs at the Lab was just the latest blow to Española. Worsening the problem is that throughout the recession, wealthy citizens of the Atomic City have patronized Española less frequently, further hobbling small businesses already operating on the margins.

As someone put it the other day: Los Alamos sneezes and Española catches a cold.

The Lab’s high-level employees will tell you, if asked what they do at the Lab, that they’re engineers. Everyone is an engineer. That’s what they’re told to say. Their security clearances, and consequently their livelihoods rest on their ability to keep mum. You’ll never know the mathematicians from the theoretical physicists, the nuclear engineers from the quantum mechanics.

That is, assuming you ever have an opportunity to ask.

Aside from its remote location, this site was handpicked by Robert Oppenheimer to discourage employees working on the Manhattan Project from interacting with local populations, who back then spoke little English. To this day, Lab staff keep largely to themselves.

Some of Española’s older residents who worked at the Lab long ago will sometimes tell wild stories. I met an 84-year-old guy a few weeks back whose job it was in the 1960s to calibrate the Geiger Counters, which measure radiation. To do this, he explained, he had to open a lead box full of radioactive isotopes to get a reading. Over time, he developed lesions on a lung and had it most of it removed.

The Rio Grande River as seen from White Rock, a bedroom community for Los Alamos National Laboratory workers.

The Lab is divided into numbered Tech Areas that stretch across 36 square miles. As you cross the bridge onto U.S. Government property, motorists are greeted with a big sign that reads: Visitors Welcome. Yesterday, while tooling around, my girlfriend and I decided to take the Government up on its friendly invitation and scoped out the campus.

There wasn’t much to see. On the surface there are many boxy, non-descript structures that appeared to be remnants of 1950s and 1960s. Most of them were surrounded by chain-link fencing with barbed-wire along the top. Most of the sensitive parts of the lab are rumored to be located underground, burrowed deep into the mountains, with many of the surface structures serving at one point as decoys, allegedly. Really, it was kind of a creepy, unsettling place, being a wellspring of so much death and global turmoil.

Being a Saturday, the parking lots were largely empty and there seemed to be no one around. Upon approaching a sign reading LANL BADGE HOLDERS ONLY BEYOND THIS POINT I turned around, but got out to take the only pictures I’d taken of the campus.

It was a simple shot of the sign. In the background was an ominous-looking security checkpoint that seemed as though it sat at the edge of a cliff for which you needed a security clearance to drive off of.

As we headed back toward Los Alamos city limits, a white SUV with U.S. Government plates raced up to me, tailed me for a quarter mile, and then lit me up just before I got to the bridge. As I pulled over, four more of those white SUVs rolled up, two of them blowing passed us and whipping sharp U-turns some distance away. The drivers then spied us through binoculars.

And, if that weren’t enough, two military vehicles resembling small gunless tanks flanked us. Through the side and rearview mirrors I saw the two Agents who lit us up exit the vehicle and slip into a crazy-looking vests that I can only assume would’ve protected them had I exploded Purple Thunder upon their approach.

An Agent approached the passenger side and asked if I had taken any pictures. Aware that he knew I had, I didn’t bother to lie. I told him I’d taken a picture of a sign. My nerves were calm until he demanded to see my camera, unsettled by the thought of him confiscating it and my very expensive lens.

“You took a lot of pictures of that sign,” he said.

“I had to get the shutter speed right,” I replied.

He asked us to step from the vehicle, which we did with haste.

As he inquired further about what we were doing there, the other Agent looked through my vehicle.

“The sign said visitors are welcome,” I explained. “So we were just driving around.”

I emphasized that I hadn’t attempted to enter any of the restricted areas, to which he replied I’d gotten a little to close to them for their comfort.

“We get a lot of foreigners here on the weekends taking pictures of things they don’t need to be taking pictures of,” he said.

I told him they ought to put up signs informing visitors photography isn’t allowed.

“There’s a lot of things I’d like to do,” he said.

I also told him the Visitors Welcome sign is very misleading.

He wrote down our information and had me delete the images from my camera. Over all, they were very respectful. They didn’t search our phones and the Agent who searched the van didn’t do anything more than poke his head inside and look around.

The Agent returned my camera and let us go about our day.


  1. Bobbie
    Posted May 27, 2012 at 7:46 am | Permalink

    All in all, it is reassuring, don’t you think? Seems like there should be some kind of Visitor Center with passes before people are allowed on site. Or a tour guide. Along with those Dos and Don’ts you mention. No cameras allowed, etc. Though there may be a security tactic in the self-selection. A long time ago, I did a story on a paper mill for a small newspaper in northern WI. It was a feature which was more of a press release. There were  badges, passes and calls to superiors (multiple) before I was allowed to take any pictures, and then, only when instructed. I don’t even remember the gist of the story, only standing on a little platform with my guide/interview, explaining he didn’t want any pictures taken of the brown water being released from the holding ponds back into the river. When I was on the state women veterans committee (the only civilian btw) we held the first state conference at Camp McCoy in Tomah. You expect rules and clearances and we were told what to expect as we entered. So jokingly (sort of) I told them if I ended up detained for some dumb stumbling thing I did, I expected them to come get me out. I was quickly told, “Rule number one, leave no one behind.” I never felt so included in anything in my life. They were a remarkable group of honorable service people and I was lucky to be involved to help rural veterans. I am glad someone was awake at the nuclear facility. i want to know they are doing their jobs. Cool story. Lots of leads for follow-up. I’m wondering about the cuts– what is the thinking behind them? And I’d like to know if there are any educational programs or scholarships for children of the workers who may want to go to college? Besides shopping and dining, is the facility in any way a good community partner? And it may not have that capacity because of its high risk nature. As to townies and island people–that’s all over. Think university towns. Or remote tourist towns like Eagle River and Bayfield. Or prison cities like Portage and Waupun and  military bases where security IS important. Different kinds of islands of “them” and the rest of the settled community.  Interesting account! Thanks!

  2. Posted May 27, 2012 at 8:15 am | Permalink

    It was reassuring to an extent. I think the Agent’s quip about the foreigners coming to take pictures suggests the potential for breaches are high. The Lab itself has come under fire several times over the last decade after laptops, hard drives and mis-inventoried plutonium sparked security scares. It has also greatly polluted the area, being that it was operational well before any environmental protections were enacted. Rumor has it there’s a lake on the property that glows. The locals only fish and swim in the lakes and rivers north of the Lab. The lay offs were a result of cuts to its $2 billion annual budget. The poverty in Española is nothing short of abject. There are no jobs, no industry, but part of that is owed to native resistance to outside influence. Also, the pueblos, which account for a large percentage of the area’s land mass complicate development, as the tribes rely heavily on government services, but pay nothing into the tax base. Some of the political and family rivalries go back hundreds of years. It’s difficult to understate how isolated this part of the Country has remained over the last 400 years. Many residents don’t speak native English and adhere faithfully to native and Spanish traditions. I think the Lab has fomented countless resentments over its outsized influence on the region and the fact that’s basically an umbilical cord keeping Española afloat and, as evidence by the recent lay offs, can be severed at any moment. 

  3. Kalia
    Posted June 8, 2012 at 8:11 am | Permalink

    What a story! I never thought that the birthplace of the atomic bomb has so much history behind it, so as such extent of preservation to everything over there! I am glad that he did not delete your pictures!<a href=””>Cleaning</a>

  4. Posted August 23, 2012 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

    This is a great post. I really appreciate your time to run through your experience here. This post reminds me of a great video that shows all of the nuclear blast over time on a map of the world. More than half of all nuclear blast have been detonated in the area of Los Alamos.What struck me as curious is that I’ve never heard any signs or problems of radiation leaks. From your experience there, did you notice any potential signs that local civilians are feeling any signs of years of nuclear detonations? It really is a shame that the local economy is the commerce that suffers when the big US money leaves.Thanks for your great insight into this region!

  5. Posted August 24, 2012 at 8:11 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Travis! I haven’t heard of any nuke blasts in Los Alamos. Most of the testing occurred 300 miles south in Alamogordo. I’ve heard locals say they won’t fish in rivers or lakes south of the lab. Santa Fe built a relief route so nuclear materials could be transported around the city. The big cancer risk around here is radon, which is caused by uranium decay underground. Most of the scientists and other high level people tend to live near the lab, so I’m guessing it’s relatively safe. I’ve heard, too, the lab has scaled back its nuclear weapons research and is more medical focus. Then again, you never really know. 

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