Bomb City, USA

Outside's long reads email newsletter features our strongest writing, most ambitious reporting, and award-winning storytelling about the outdoors. Sign up today.

Outside magazine, April 1996

Bomb City, USA

Before Fat Man and Little Boy, there was the Town That Never Was. Fifty years and generations of nuclear weapons later, it remains one of the most glorified and reviled places in our history. Deep in the shadow of Los Alamos, a town with a contaminiated soul–and a half-life of 24,000 years.
By Jim Erikson

As I drive the sharp curves and canyons of New Mexico’s Route 4, the Pajarito Plateau looms overhead, throwing jagged shadows on the road. In the distance the blue-haze vistas of the Sangre de Cristo, Ortiz, and Sandia Mountains shimmer in the kiln heat of an
August day. Along the intermittent creeks are impressive stands of fluttering alamos, or cottonwoods. Acorn woodpeckers and hummingbirds dart among the piñons and junipers, and painted lady butterflies take nectar from wildflowers along the way.

Submerged beneath this breathtaking landscape, however, is a history of geologic upheaval. The Pajarito Plateau was created more than a million years ago by the explosions of a massive volcano that spewed fallout as far away as Kansas. The crater of that ancient volcano stretches for nearly 15 miles and is one of the largest calderas in North America, visible with the naked eye
from the moon. For the past half-century, this cataclysmic ruin has been occupied, appropriately enough, by the Los Alamos National Laboratory, the place that added the possibility of instant, across-the-board annihilation to the paranoia of being human.

As I crest the plateau and coast into the center of Los Alamos, I’m surprised to find the streets mostly empty. Today is August 6, Hiroshima Day, and I’ve come up here to the so-called Mesa of Doom to attend a vigil in a public park in the heart of town. It was 50 years ago, almost to the minute, that Little Boy, as the Los Alamos scientists affectionately called their
creation, was dropped on Hiroshima, ultimately killing

150,000 people and giving birth to an industry that would produce $4 trillion worth of infinitely more lethal thermonuclear weapons in this country alone. Yet amazingly there are only about 30 demonstrators in the park, sitting quietly in a circle beside a concrete-lined lake known as Ashley Pond. The general response to Hiroshima Day, here and everywhere, seems to be yawning
indifference. More people are out playing golf at the Los Alamos Country Club than pausing to reflect on the event that made Los Alamos forever infamous.

Some of the demonstrators are meditating with their eyes closed, and every so often, as the spirit moves, one shares what is on his or her mind. One woman stands up to reveal the shameful fact that she was born on Hiroshima Day, a karmic coincidence that she says she’ll “have to live down for the rest of my life.” Among the ragtag crowd are a Santa Fe poet in drag, two
anthropologists studying America’s nuclear lab culture, several repentant scientists who once worked in LANL’s top-secret weapons complex, and various members of the Los Alamos Study Group, which tries to monitor the activities of the lab and hold it accountable for the radiation it has leaked into the surrounding desert. Without question, a half-century of building bombs has left
an indelible mark of radioactive contamination, both on the LANL property itself, and on the contiguous reservation lands of Pueblo Indian tribes. The Department of Energy now estimates that a full-scale clean-up of the Pajarito Plateau would cost $4.5 billion.

Across the pond, a well-known local named Ed Grothus is busily laying out luminarias, sand-filled paper bags set with candles, in a configuration that spells ONE BOMB IS TOO MANY. When I amble over to speak to him, Grothus, a big, ruddy man with wispy white hair and an oversize bolo tie, seems distracted, lost in a reverie. He points up at the late afternoon sun and says, “Now
that’s the only good nuclear reaction around. The site is ideal. It’s 93 million miles away.”

Don Eduardo de los Alamos, as Grothus likes to call himself–though people generally just call him Crazy Ed–once proposed to the Los Alamos County Council that the town’s name be changed to Buchenwald II. Grothus arrived in Los Alamos in 1949 and put in 20 years as a machinist in the weapons group. He finally quit in disgust at the height of the Vietnam War, and since then
he’s been collecting mountains of high-tech salvage from the lab and selling it to movie studios, sculptors, and mad scientists. Over the years he has become known as the town’s dissident spirit, its Socrates, the kind of man who seems to thrive on the day-to-day quixotism of preaching to neighbors who are incapable of hearing his message.

“There aren’t any people here like me,” he says. “This town is a self-selected, incestuous culture. In order to work here, you have to agree with the mission, that these weapons are necessary to save the world. You have to have a top-flight scientific mind and training. And you have to have a Q clearance. If you slept with a communist, if you read the wrong books, belonged to
the wrong clubs–inhaled–you can forget about working at Los Alamos.”

Sprinkled here and there are a few counterdemonstrators, including a guy in a T-shirt depicting a mushroom cloud with the caption MADE IN AMERICA, TESTED IN JAPAN. A Los Alamos High School senior named Joel Younger has set up a homemade banner that proclaims, JAPAN STARTED WWII TO ENSURE TYRANNY, AMERICA ENDED WWII TO ENSURE FREEDOM.

“What we need now,” Younger says, “is enough missiles to fill our submarines so we can strike anywhere in the world and maintain a constant military threat.”

A skinny kid with blue eyes and neatly cut blond hair, Younger is a lab brat, the son of a career nuclear specialist. When I ask what moved him to set up his counterprotest here at Ashley Pond, he says, “I thought if there were only peace activists on the anniversary of Hiroshima, it would be like a priest preaching to the choir.”

It was Joel Younger who helped sway the county council last spring to halt a proposed plan to build a modest statue and peace park in Los Alamos as a memorial to the children who died at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The signatures of 41,000 children had been gathered in all 50 states and 53 foreign countries, and more than $20,000 had been collected to pay for the statue. In
rejecting the project, the council members said they were concerned that the memorial would become a focal point for antinuclear demonstrators–people like those gathered at Ashley Pond–and would effectively serve as an “indictment” of the town’s raison d’‹tre.

As the sun begins to sink behind the Jemez Mountains, I ask Younger what his objection was to the peace monument. His answer is an emphatic endorsement of the company line. “We have the bomb and the flag–and that’s peace enough.”

After the vigil, I drive through the tidy, architecturally unprepossessing streets of Los Alamos. Passing the old barracks-style duplexes and the antiseptic retail district bustling with smartly dressed housewives, I’m struck by the eerily dated feel of the place. It’s as if the town somehow got stuck in the amber of the second Eisenhower administration. The guard tower that
once stopped all casual visitors at the city limits has been padlocked since 1958, but Los Alamos, the secret installation that was nicknamed the Town That Never Was, still seems subtly internalized, like some burrowing desert life form that is happily oblivious to the sea changes of the world.

At a Chinese restaurant downtown, two physicists are locking intellectual antlers, feverishly scribbling equations on a tattered napkin. Outside, a semitruck trundles by, bearing some supremely exotic-looking stainless-steel mystery cargo, but no one pays it any mind.

Many of the streets and businesses bear nuclear-themed names–Deuterium Plutonium Road, Oppenheimer Drive, Trinity Realty, Atomic City Hobbies–evoking a faintly apocalyptic feel that is oddly reinforced by the scores of churches scattered among the clapboard homes and cedar chalets. Considering Los Alamos’s bedrock scientific background, there are a surprising number of
born-again, charismatic faiths represented here, such as the Living Water Community Church and the First Assembly of God. (A writer who’s working on a book about Los Alamos will later explain to me, somewhat facetiously, “They want to be right there when the end comes.”)

The people on the streets of Los Alamos appear to be vigorously, almost exuberantly healthy, as if physical fitness were required by municipal decree. At nearly every turn, I stumble upon a tennis complex, an aquatics center, a martial arts club, a cross-country ski trail. At lunch hour the parks and running paths are crowded with mountain bikers and middle-aged joggers with
close-cropped, military-style haircuts, their laminated security cards swinging from their necks.

Los Alamos would appear to be the picture of health from a statistical vantage point as well. Los Alamos County has New Mexico’s highest per capita income, its most heavily patronized public library, and one of the highest concentrations of Ph.D.’s in the country. Homelessness, violent crime, vandalism, and gangs are practically nonexistent. Property taxes are low, and the
county’s unemployment rate has historically hovered at just over 1 percent.

Indeed, as I cruise around town, I’m tempted to think of Los Alamos as a kind of Ozzie and Harriet archetype of American normalcy, until I head farther out on the spurs of the mesa. Here one finds LANL’s “technical areas,” vast warrens of yellow cinder-block buildings, Quonset huts, and wide-load trailers connected in baroque tangles of pipes, cables, and ventilation ducts.
Driving along the back roads of the LANL property, it is difficult to distinguish one technical area from another, let alone to know what’s behind the chain-link fencing and the scrim of junipers.

There is one technical area, however, that stands out: TA-55, the nation’s last fully operative plutonium facility, an extremely well fortified installation where a cache of some 57,000 pounds of weapons-grade Pu awaits its ultimate fate. It is nearly dusk when I stop by TA-55. The compound, which has an annual operating budget of $80 million, looks like a scaled-down version
of Fort Knox, with its guard towers and triple-redundant fencing topped with razor wire. Lingering here in the surreal pallor of the floodlights, which are bright enough to be seen 50 miles across the Rio Grande Valley, it occurs to me for the first time to think of Los Alamos not so much as an anachronism, but a place very much in the here and now.

When the Soviet Union broke up in the late 1980s, it was widely assumed that the glory days of the lab were over. It seemed unlikely that LANL could continue without a full-blown arms race to give its mission a sense of national urgency. Perhaps in a few decades, it was thought, Los Alamos might become another New Mexican ghost town and would in time even come to resemble the
Bandelier National Monument ruins, which litter the seductively beautiful landscape around LANL’s 43-square-mile property. Reduced by time and the elements to skeletal floor plans with a few slivers of wall still intact, these Anasazi ruins look startlingly like the photographs of the charred and desolate remnants of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Yet standing on the perimeter of what is likely the world’s largest stash of the world’s most toxic substance, a material that in the proper configuration could incinerate a fair swath of the planet, one realizes in especially vivid terms that though the Cold War is over, the nuclear age, with all its far-ranging doubts and lunacies, is still alive and thriving on a certain
mesa in New Mexico. Though there have been significant layoffs and cutbacks over the past few years, this strange oasis of cutting-edge science and alpine rusticity remains immersed in its original mission of tapping the fury of the atom. Despite a comprehensive nuclear test ban that has been in effect since President Clinton took office in 1992, and despite a world climate
increasingly intolerant of nuclear weapons (indeed, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded last October to Polish-born physicist Joseph Rotblat, an outspoken opponent of nuclear weapons who was the only scientist to quit the Manhattan Project), LANL’s purpose has not substantially changed. As many of the other facilities in the nation’s nuclear weapons complex have been closed down,
LANL has taken up much of the slack, with 75 percent of its $1.1 billion annual budget currently earmarked for defense-related research.

In October, in fact, it was announced that LANL will be leading the development of a new $323 million proton accelerator that will produce tritium, a radioactive gas that boosts the explosive power of nuclear warheads. Among its other new projects, the lab is now in the midst of constructing a controversial $124 million complex, known as the dual axis radiographic hydrotest
facility, that is designed to study precisely what happens to the components of nuclear weapons in the milliseconds before implosion and, opponents argue, may violate the spirit, if not the letter, of the test ban. And while the world has yet to present the United States with a nuclear enemy significant enough to replace the Soviet threat, LANL’s weapons designers are still doing
what they can to keep up their chops.

Like any ultrasecret compound, LANL has spawned a welter of local myths over the years. You’ll hear about how the town sprinkles the golf course with radioactive water and how everything from the honeybees to the elk herds in the surrounding Jemez Mountains are contaminated with plutonium. You’ll hear about all sorts of bizarre behavior, about the witch covens, the white
supremacist cells, the cabal of renegade Mormons that is secretly running the lab.

None of these noirish rumors checks out, of course, and yet it occurs to me that their sheer numbers must tell us something about the uneasy relationship that Los Alamos has not only with itself but also with a country that now, all these years later, feels a deep ambivalence about the bomb. It would be the height of arrogance to believe that a half-century of ransacking the
very substrata of nature could have been accomplished without despoiling the mesa on which the whole enterprise sits. In many ways, Los Alamos is a contaminated place, and one doesn’t have to look very hard to find casualties.

Once a month jonathan garcia, a feisty, red-headed, 44-year-old man from nearby Espaola, drives to Albuquerque and catches a plane to Denver for tests and chemotherapy at a hospital that specializes in cancer treatment. Garcia has leukemia, as well as painful sores in his mouth from infections that his compromised immune system has been unable to fight off. The plane flies, by
grim coincidence, over LANL, where Garcia put in 14 years as a heavy equipment operator, hauling and disposing of radioactive waste.

On a warm, crystalline morning, Garcia walks me around the perimeter of Area G, the main “hot dump,” where by his estimate he buried at least 80,000 barrels of plutonium- or uranium-contaminated sludge between l976 and l989. Inside the fence of Area G, white tents have been set up, where technicians in alpha-blocking suits are digging up barrels of contaminated sludge to be
shipped downstate to a billion-dollar nuclear waste disposal facility in a salt cavern near Carlsbad. According to recently declassified documents, 1,344 pounds of plutonium waste are buried or stored at Area G.

Garcia peers into this high-tech hive of activity and recalls his time working there. “I ran bulldozers, scrapers, backhoes,” he says. “I buried monkeys, pigs, cows, dogs, elk that had been dissected and monitored. I even buried some human remains, parts of medical cadavers that had been donated to the lab but had been contaminated. I covered the drums under a foot and a half
of earth or dropped them into eight-by-eight culverts. Lots of times the covers would come off or the drums would get crushed under the weight of the dozer, and the sludge would splash all over the place. It was like yellow tortilla dough. I’d pick it up on the treads.”

Area G is just one of at least 1,000 potentially hazardous sites on the LANL grounds. Watchdog groups estimate that there are now some 12 million cubic feet of radioactive waste buried or dumped along the mesa. During the Manhattan Project and well into the 1950s, the environmental and health effects of radiation were not fully understood, and technicians routinely piped
cesium, plutonium, and other radioactive waste into the surrounding canyons. No one at the lab bothered to maintain records of the burial sites, and their precise locations are in some cases still unknown.

Despite the risks of handling toxic materials, Garcia claims, his bosses at the lab never advised him to wear anything special to block possible radiation. “Just white coveralls and a T-shirt,” he says. “They told us it was low-level and wouldn’t harm us unless we held it in our hands or took a bite out of it. But we always had our doubts.”

The terms of a $50,000 settlement that Garcia signed two years ago stipulate that he cannot hold LANL legally responsible for his leukemia, so he now finds himself in an extremely delicate position. However, he plans to testify for three of his buddies who are contemplating suing the lab because of health problems they claim arose from their work.

Garcia says four of his colleagues over the years have died or are dying of cancer. “My mechanic, Willie Romero, used to work at Area G all the time,” he tells me. “He was diagnosed with cancer in March and died in May. Jesse Guttierrez, who used to haul dumpsters to the hot dump, was diagnosed with cancer in May and died in July. Then Armando War, a pipefitter, got some kind
of leukemia which is different from mine.”

Watchdog groups insist that little has changed since the late 1980s, when Garcia quit working at the lab. “Historically, LANL’s nuclear objectives have always taken priority over any concerns about health and the environment,” argues Jay Coghlan, research analyst at the Santa Fe-based Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety. “And now, as LANL attempts to consolidate more and more
of the nation’s nuclear weapons complex, our concerns are even greater.”

Certainly death and disease have been a part of Los Alamos since its earliest days. On May 21, 1946, a physicist named Louis Slotin was performing a “crit test,” lowering two halves of a beryllium sphere that would convert a small quantity of plutonium to a critical state, when the screwdriver that kept them from touching slipped. The assembly went supercritical, a blue glow
lighted the room for a millisecond, and Slotin received a lethal dose of radiation. He died nine days later.

Between 1945 and 1947, in a secret project overseen by LANL scientists, 18 Americans were injected with plutonium to see how it would react in the human body. These people were not told the nature of the experiment and never gave informed consent. They were identified only by numbers until Albuquerque Tribune reporter Eileen Welsome tracked down
the identities of five of them for a series of articles that won her a Pulitzer Prize in 1994.

Over the years, there have been numerous other allegations of health and environmental malfeasance at the labs. In 1990, a Harvard-educated environmental engineer named David Nochumson, who was hired by LANL to help monitor air quality, informed his superiors that the lab was violating the Clean Air Act because it had no procedures for measuring possible emissions of
radioactive materials. In response, Nochumson was told by his supervisor that he could simply “do away with” Nochumson’s position. Nochumson was later told to seek counseling. In June 1991 he was demoted, but three years later, an administrative judge with the Department of Labor issued a decision in favor of Nochumson, ordering the lab to reinstate him to his former position and
pay him back wages and damages. “The lab does what it wants to do, when it wants to do it,” says Nochumson’s attorney, Tom Carpenter, with the Government Accountability Project, a nonprofit organization that represents government whistle-blowers around the country. “They are expert liars and cover-up artists, and there is no oversight whatsoever.”

According to watchdog groups, LANL still hasn’t brought itself within federal guidelines for monitoring its own emissions. Says Coghlan of Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety, “LANL has never been in compliance with the Clean Air Act, and it’s still not complying.”

In 1991 a sculptor named Tyler Mercier, whose wife works in LANL’s computer division, undertook an informal study that revealed that between 1985 and 1990 there had been 11 incidences of brain tumors in one Los Alamos neighborhood alone. Mercier says that LANL authorities ignored his findings, and soon he began to receive prank phone calls and a variety of threats. “I had a guy
at an aerobics class come up to me and say, ‘If you bring down my property value, I’ll burn your house down,'” Mercier recalls.

The New Mexico Department of Health later looked into the apparent cluster of brain tumors and determined that although it did seem excessive, it was probably only an aberration, the kind of skewed figure that sometimes crops up when canvassing a relatively small population pool such as Los Alamos. Yet in the course of the survey, the state found an even more troubling
statistic: The rate of thyroid cancer in Los Alamos County was four times the national average. “It was a fairly striking pattern that really jumped out,” says state epidemiologist William Athas. “I’ve never seen anything like it in this or any other county. Ionizing radiation at high levels can give you thyroid cancer, especially in childhood. The short of it is, we don’t have an

LANL, for its part, flatly denies that anyone apart from Louis Slotin has ever suffered negative effects from exposure to radioactive materials at the lab. LANL spokesmen are extremely adroit at picking apart “anecdotal” stories like Garcia’s. In the end, they maintain that everything is completely normal at the lab, within the range of acceptable statistical variation.

“Our health and safety record is just as good as an insurance company’s,” John Gustafson, an official LANL spokesman, assures me at one point.

“I worked with accelerator-induced radiation for 20 years, and I’m still here,” says John Hopkins, a former associate director of nuclear weapons development at LANL. “I’ll bet you can’t find a single Los Alamosan who says he has an identifiable negative effect from radiation. If you used the statistics alone, you might even conclude that plutonium is good for you.”

LANL’s main administrative complex looks something like the engineering school of an extremely well endowed but aesthetically challenged technical college. Many of the buildings are immense, mausoleum-like structures, with understated signs–ION BEAM FACILITY, THEORETICAL DIVISION, CRYOGENICS–that do little to convey the complex work that goes on inside. Within these vast
interiors, LANL scientists don’t just conduct weapons research. In recent years, they have been mapping the human genome and developing laser technology that one day could be used to unclot coronary arteries, shrink swollen prostate glands, and closely monitor air pollution levels in places like Mexico City. Other specialists have been working on a new archival storage system that
is capable of inscribing the equivalent of 10,000 floppy disks on an inchlong tungsten pin. Over the past several years, LANL physicists have discovered that the phantomlike subatomic particles known as neutrinos may have a trace of mass, a finding that could revolutionize both physics and astronomy.

It is in the bowels of the administrative complex, in a generic, soundproof conference room, that I meet LANL’s fifth director, Siegfried Hecker. “The bomb itself wasn’t what drew me here,” Hecker tells me. “It was the metal. Plutonium is the most fascinating of materials. Most metals have just one crystalline structure, but Pu can adopt six different ones at ambient pressure,
each of which has a different behavior.” Hecker is a slight, gray-haired man in his early fifties, with squirrel-like features and the trim build of a mountain biker. A metallurgist by training, Hecker has been at the lab 22 years, the last nine as its director. As he talks, a LANL public relations man is jotting notes across the room, “witnessing” our conversation.

Hecker’s faith in the bomb is deeply rooted in his childhood, he explains. “I was born in Poland, of Austrian parents, and grew up in Bosnia,” he says. “My father was drafted into the German army and was sent to the Russian front. So I had no problem being drawn into nuclear weapons. I was willing to do my part to keep this country free.”

Hecker traces the evolution of humankind’s capacity to kill ever larger numbers of its own kind, from the crossbow in the twelfth century to gunpowder in the sixteenth to the more recent high explosives of Alfred Nobel and the horrors of mustard and nerve gas. There were some 86 million war deaths in the first half of the twentieth century, 55 million in World War II alone. The
deterrent effect of the atomic bomb changed all this, Hecker argues: Since Hiroshima and Nagasaki there have been a mere 17 million war deaths. “As Oppenheimer put it,” says Hecker, “the atomic bomb made the prospect of future war unendurable. Clearly these horrible events made world leaders think twice.”

So reads the gospel of Los Alamos. For 50 years it’s remained essentially the same, parroted by men and women who were unable to see anything but good in the work they were doing. But when the Cold War ended in the late 1980s, Los Alamos found itself up against the wall, confused about its future and consumed by bitter squabbles within the Department of Energy. The enormously
ambitious Star Wars project, which had kept Los Alamos scientists handsomely funded for the better part of a decade, was deemed infeasible by 1991 and has since been scaled back to almost nothing.

“If we don’t have a compelling national mission,” says Hecker, “we can’t justify this facility. Now the mission is to bring the arsenal down while maintaining its deterrent effect, to help the country run its engines in reverse while keeping weapons out of the wrong hands.”

For LANL, the monolithic Soviet nuclear threat has been replaced by the hydra-headed problems of proliferation, terrorism, the storage and cleanup of radiocontaminants, and the very real possibility that rogue states such as Saddam Hussein’s Iraq will soon develop their own bomb. A good portion of LANL’s budget is allocated for surveillance and intelligence-gathering. This
includes working with other government specialists and agencies to secure stashes of plutonium worldwide and to neutralize situations that might result in “yield.” LANL even has a trained nuclear bomb squad that can fly anywhere in the world in a matter of hours to investigate a terrorist threat, preempt an accident, or disable a warhead.

But perhaps the most compelling work at the lab these days is “stockpile stewardship,” a multibillion-dollar project designed to ensure that the aging warheads in the scaled-down nuclear arsenal will work reliably if they’re ever called upon and, equally important, that they will never go off accidentally.

Later in the week, in an adjacent soundproof conference room in the administrative complex, I meet with James Mercer-Smith, a veteran designer of warheads who works in the stockpile stewardship program. “Weapons materials tend to degrade over time,” he explains. “And if you don’t have confidence in your stockpile, you have no credibility.”

Mercer-Smith suggests an image to bring home his point. “You’re going back East, right? How’d you like to fly out of Albuquerque in a 707 that hasn’t been started in 25 years?”

Mercer-Smith is a boyish, tweedy man who compares the role of a weapons designer to that of the witch in Grimm’s fairy tales. “My job,” he tells me, “is to scare you into being good.” He quotes former LANL director Harold Agnew’s recommendation that every few years the leaders of the world should be required to strip down to their skivvies and feel the heat of a nuclear test
blast to remind them of their awesome responsibility. Mercer-Smith has had a few of his own warhead designs detonated at the Department of Energy’s test site in Nevada over the years, and I think I detect a twinge of nostalgia as he recalls the pre-test-ban days. “The last thing I did out there was not particularly big,” he says. “But it was the third- or fourth-largest earthquake
in the world that week–four point something. You could feel the earth shake 20 miles away.”

Today, the test ban has forced weapons designers to try to re-create the dynamics of nuclear explosions through elaborate computer modeling and other forms of simulation technology. LANL scientists have also been planning what are known as “subcritical experiments” at the Nevada Test Site, in which nonnuclear high explosives are detonated near an undisclosed quantity of
plutonium to study the properties of aging nuclear materials.

But many of the scientists take a dim view of such work, claiming that it is no substitute for the accurate measurements that can be obtained during full-scale tests. “The nuclear test is the core ritual through which the Los Alamos community affirms itself,” says Hugh Gusterston, an MIT anthropologist who’s writing a book on America’s nuclear-lab cultures. “The weapons
designer is the elite within the lab. He has to study the explosions of senior designers for five years before he gets to do his own. The test is the way the designer affirms control of his weapon, the only way he can find out if it works and does what he thinks it will. But now this core ritual is banned. So, if you’re a designer, what are you living for?”

The Bradbury Science Museum, a cavernous edifice in the center of town, is one of the few places at LANL where visitors are welcomed with open arms. This high-tech shrine to the atom is visited by 130,000 tourists each year. Here you will find, among other things, the carcass of a cruise missile hung from the ceiling, a life-size bust of Robert Oppenheimer, and full-scale
models of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs. The museum, which has apparently had a problem with visitors attempting to re-create the famous bomb-straddling scene from the film Dr. Strangelove , has put out a placard that says, PLEASE DO NOT CLIMB ON LITTLE BOY.

The Bradbury is a study in sanitized history: In all of its official exhibits, there is scarcely a mention of the moral complexities of the atomic bomb, its environmental consequences, or what happened to the citizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The planes flew, the bombs fell through the sky, and miraculously the war was over.

I have encountered this peculiar condition of denial elsewhere around town. In my meeting with former weapons designer John Hopkins earlier in the week, I asked about the profusion of churches, the odd coupling of religion and weaponry that I had noted while driving around town. Was it related to a need for atonement? “That has nothing to do with it,” Hopkins shot back.
“Because a hundred thousand people die in cars every year, are the people who make them killers?”

And yet there is a statistic that may reveal the toll of living in Los Alamos: According to the most recent data, the town’s suicide rate is 43 percent higher than the national average. Some attribute this to the stress of living and working in a high-pressure environment. Others say the suicides are a manifestation of Los Alamos’s dark side. Behind its face of resolute
patriotism and unwavering confidence in the deterrent value of the bomb, they contend, is the repressed psyche of a guilt-ridden town.

There are quite a few psychotherapists in nearby Santa Fe who see employees of the lab. One of them is Alicia Lauritzen, whose father, as it happens, worked on the Manhattan Project. “The labbies have this lily-white appearance,” she argues. “But as Jung said, if you don’t cast a shadow you’re not human. If the labbies show theirs, they don’t get clearance. So they have a
stacked deck.”

Lauritzen believes it is “synchronicitous,” another Jungian term, that artsy, bohemian Santa Fe should have a “totally linear and pragmatic” community for a neighbor. “Santa Fe carries a lot of Los Alamos’s undeveloped dark side,” she says. “Los Alamosans put Santa Feans down as sexually wanton New Age airheads, while Santa Feans see Los Alamosans as conservative, uncreative
types who don’t flow with life.”

Lauritzen contends that Los Alamos represents, in a way, our collective shadow. “Think about the origin of the word plutonium,” she says. “Who is Pluto? The god of the underworld. This is a multibillion-dollar industry dedicated to death.”

John Hopkins and I discussed another shadow phenomenon–the silhouettes of Hiroshima civilians that were left on walls several miles from ground zero moments after the explosion of Little Boy. To me, these were among history’s most horrible images of destruction, ranking with the Pompeian couple smothered flagrante delicto by lava from erupting Vesuvius and the Rwandan baby,
still alive and sucking on its mother’s machete-mutilated breast, discovered last year in a pit with hundreds of other decomposing Tutsis. Hopkins explained that the blinding flash of the bomb cast a shadow on the wall and burned around it, leaving a kind of intaglio impression.

“And moments later the person who cast the shadow was”–I struggled for the right word–“vaporized? Incinerated? Thermoradiated?”

“How about burnt to a crisp?” Hopkins suggested, and then, to my amazement, he giggled. It was not a malicious laugh but as a nervous one, dissociative rather than uncompassionate. It lasted a few seconds, and then Hopkins caught himself.

At the Bradbury, I stumble upon a small, nearly inconspicuous protest exhibit erected a few years ago by the Los Alamos Study Group after much deliberation by museum officials. This installation, which shows gruesome photographs of tumors, thermal radiation burns, and the heaped corpses of Hiroshima civilians, has proved so haunting that a group of outraged World War II
veterans demanded–and received–adjacent space for their own appalling exhibit depicting the atrocities of Japanese concentration camps.

Alongside these dueling grotesqueries is a large scrapbook set out on a podium where visitors can write down their own views on the subject of nuclear weapons. It is a poignant experience to thumb through the hundreds of pages of heartfelt compositions. On one page, an American survivor of a Japanese concentration camp wrote, “Because we used the bomb, I am alive.” Another page
bears the simple line, “We cannot judge by today’s standards.” Another says, “An eye for an eye until the entire world is blind.”

The next entry has a familiar ring. “One bomb is too many,” it reads, with the signature, “Don Eduardo de Los Alamos.”

Before I leave the mesa, I decide to pay a visit to Don Eduardo’s surplus store, which is formally called the Los Alamos Sales Company but is more commonly known around town as the Black Hole. The junk is housed, floor to rafters, in a dilapidated A-frame that used to be the Missouri Synod Lutheran Church. Outside is a handwritten sign that reads, THERE IS NOTHING IN THIS

Grothus also has merchandise stored in the parking lot, gargantuan heaps of high-tech equipment cast off from the lab over the past 50 years. The neighbors keep threatening to sue him for creating a public eyesore. Grothus buys the stuff dirt cheap from the lab and sells it to anyone –packrats, professional museum collectors browsing for vintage pieces, scientists from Third
World countries hunting for bargains. The Black Hole, in fact, provided technical props for the movie Silkwood.

An old hippie employee with long gray hair tied in a ponytail gives me the tour. “This here is the happening part of a laser,” he explains. “Here is a thermonuclear pump with the power supply ready to go. You can make your own Jack Daniels with this-here fermenter.” Hidden among the stainless-steel tubing and stacks of diodes are an active scattering aerosol spectrometer, a
dynamic mutual conductance tube tester, and an “explosionproof” clock stopped at 5:01. Out in the parking lot is a million-dollar solar-cell system from the Reagan years. My guide says it was used once, and “after it reached 450 degrees Fahrenheit and they saw it worked, they put it out for salvage.”

Returning to the main building, I catch up with Grothus, who is sitting like the mayor of a very weird town in a squeaky office chair, beside a sign that reads, DO NOT ENTER: LASER IN OPERATION. Grothus is nursing a bad back today, but he seems in a chipper mood. “Take anything you like,” he tells me. “This is the only place where shoplifting is encouraged!”

It occurs to me to think of this ironic junkyard as a kind of museum of hubris, a warehouse where the convictions of Western rationalism are on display. It all ends up here, to be requisitioned, carried off, cannibalized for spare parts –or simply to rust and rot in the chamiso weeds. One wonders whether new generations of junk are spinning off from the lab and heading here,
even now, the next sparkling contrivances of a culture that believes, above all else, in the redemptive power of technology.

There is a raw squeak as Grothus leans back in his chair. “They say the guy with the most toys at the end of the game wins.” He gestures toward his jumbled inventory. “Well, guess who’s winning.”

Alex Shoumatoff’s book about the American Southwest, Legends of the Desert,
will be published next year by Alfred A. Knopf. Hampton Sides
and John Galvin contributed additional reporting for this story.

promo logo