Las Conchas Fire Woke Us Up—Let Us Now Stop The Plutonium Bomb Factory
By Subhankar Banerjee, July 1, 2011

The Las Conchas Fire in New Mexico is still burning. It is rapidly growing by the day. On June 29, I did a phone interview with Jay Coghlan, executive director of Nuclear Watch New Mexico and his colleague Scott Kovac; and sit down conversation with Marian Naranjo, a prominent native American elder and activist from the Santa Clara Pueblo and Joni Arends, executive director of Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety. As you’ll see, the Las Conchas Fire has woken us up. It is time we learn from this deadly fire and stop a proposed plutonium bomb factory at the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL). I’ll tell you how your voice is crucial in this matter, but first here is an update on the fire that is also burning Santa Clara Pueblo lands.

Las Conchas Fire Update

On the morning of June 28, when I posted my first piece on the subject, the Las Conchas Fire had burned about 50,000 acres. As of yesterday 10:30pm it has burned 93,678 acres, 322 acres shy of being the largest fire in New Mexico history—by the time this piece is posted it’ll be the largest. Mother Nature is in a frenzied state right now and breaking record after record on wildfires across states. Last month Arizona broke their record with the Wallow Fire.

If you’re not right underneath the smoke it is difficult to get a sense of the scale of a large fire. NASA’s Aqua satellite flew over the area on June 28. Following day NASA released a photo of smoke over land that you can check out here. Last year smoke over Moscow made international headlines. Siberia was ablaze also and NASA released a fascinating image of smoke over Siberia and the adjacent Arctic Seas, also taken by the Aqua satellite that you can check out here. According to NASA the fires over central Russia, Siberia and Canada during summer 2010 created an enormous poisonous ring around the northern hemisphere. Unfortunately it didn’t get coverage in the US press and media. Nevertheless very large fires send a lot of toxic pollutants into the air that are hazardous to human health.

The wind has spread the Las Conchas Fire generally in a north–south direction. If the fire had expanded east toward the Area G, where 20,000 drums (each 55 gallons) of plutonium contaminated waste are sitting on the surface inside fabric tents, air in our region probably would have been nuked by now, but that is not the case, so far.

We do not know what ecological and human health impact the Las Conchas Fire will leave behind, but since the fire started we’ve been very concerned about what’s in Area G and is there any possibility that the fire could reach there? In a June 27 article, when asked by an AP writer a LANL spokesperson “declined to confirm that there were any such drums now on the property.” In a June 30 AP article, asked by the same writer another LANL spokesperson said that there are 10,000 drums stored there. Why didn’t the government tell us the truth, the first time? And, are we still getting the truth—10,000 is not same as 20,000, but who is counting?

Joni Arends told me, “After the Dome Fire of 1996, we asked for hardened onsite storage for these drums. They did nothing. Then after the devastating Cerro Grande Fire of 2000 that burned 47,000 acres including 5,000 acres inside LANL, we pressed for it again. They laughed at us and told us that by the time they get the permit to build the hardened storage, all the drums will be offsite. Here we are 11 years later, 20,000 drums containing plutonium contaminated waste are still sitting stacked three high inside fabric tents between a super volcano—Valles Caldera to the west and the Rio Grande River, our main water source to the east, on an active seismic zone, in a forested wildfire habitat.”

June 29 Satellite Fire Detection Data: Las Conchas–Los Alamos National Lab Boundary. Map courtesy Nuclear Watch New Mexico.

Jay Coghland walked me through a June 29 Google Earth image with overlay of the fire that you can check out here. He specifically pointed to the western edge of the lab, which is heavily forested. He showed me several red squares, which means there was fire activity in the last 0–6 hours in those areas. This is known as Tech Area 16 adjacent to Hwy 501 where there is a large Tritium Facility. Jay said, “this is a micro location which is pretty heavily contaminated with heavy explosives residues that would release dioxin and other toxins in the air that cause cancer.” He also shared his worry about the northwest corner of the lab, Tech Area 3, which he said has the densest concentration of lab facilities and employees. This area was also burning heavily.

I wanted to learn from him other radioactive contaminated areas in and around LANL. He told me the story of the acid canyon. “During the WWII days, the lab used to dump radioactive fluid literally over the edge of a canyon on the north side of the lab. This area later came to be known as acid canyon,” he said. “It is not threatened by the fire so far.”

Joni Arends told me, “The lab has acknowledged that there are only 1,000 toxic dump sites at Los Alamos, including a PCB dump where the levels are 38,000 times normal. The story that comes from the lab is not true.” She urged me to read Glenn Walp’s book, Implosion at Los Alamos: How Crime, Corruption, and Cover–Ups Jeopardize America’s Nuclear Weapons Secrets.

Marian Naranjo shared with me their spiritual beliefs about the land they inhabit, “The Pajarito Plateau on which Los Alamos National Lab was built is a sacred place to the native pueblo people since time immemorial. Look at the Bandelier National Monument, our ancestors lived there, but right now it is threatened by this fire. There are 19 fingers in the Pajarito Plateau that you call canyons. Those are sacred to us. That is where the springs are. Fire is sacred to us, as it replenishes life. Cloud is sacred to us, as we wait for rain. Rain is sacred to us, as it keeps everything alive in the desert. But after Los Alamos was built, our spiritual belief system has been shattered. Now when we look up at the sky and see cloud, we wonder, is there radioactive elements in the cloud? When we get rain, we wonder, could it bring poison to our communities. We’re afraid of our own rain. You talk about Area G as if it is an inanimate place, but all those plutonium–contaminated drums are sitting on one of our largest sacred Kivas. The lab is destroying our spiritual belief system.”

The government is heavily monitoring the air in the area for toxic pollutants. They’re using dozens of monitors on the ground as well as a specially outfitted twin–engine plane with sensors that came from the Environmental Protection Agency. As of June 29, “top lab officials and fire managers say there have been no releases of toxins.” Let us hope we’re getting the full truth.

Marian Naranjo told me, “you cannot see radioactive elements in the air, you cannot smell it, you cannot taste it, and just because it cannot be detected with technical toys, doesn’t mean its not there. After the Cerro Grande Fire the government told us that no radioactive element was released in the air. We never had leukemia in our children, now we do, in Santa Clara and the San Ildefonso Pueblos.”

Santa Clara Pueblo Land Is Ablaze

“Santa Clara is on fire now,” Marian’s voice was filled with pain, “it reached our reservation line yesterday. The smoke was so bad at Santa Clara that they had to distribute masks to our community members. I cried. All that water, all that effort, all that building of fire lines are for protecting the lab. Who is protecting our community? Are they letting the tribe burn? It doesn’t feel very good to be on the short end of the stick. Fire has also reached the Cochiti Pueblo on the south. This is a very deep environmental justice issue.”

By June 30 the Las Conchas Fire had burned 6,000 acres of the watershed of the Santa Clara Pueblo. It is continuing to destroy cultural sites, forest resources, plants and animals that the people of Santa Clara depend upon for their livelihood and culture.

On June 30 the Santa Clara Pueblo Governor Walter Dasheno issued a Declaration of Emergency. “We are devastated to witness the destruction of our precious homeland,” said Governor Dasheno. “From time immemorial to this day our community has been stewards of this land, have fought to regain portions taken from us and have invested millions of dollars in restoring the forest and resources.”

The fire exploded across the western third of the reservation, including P’opii Khanu, the headwaters of the creek, which the Pueblo regained in 2000 after 140 years of struggle. “Our canyon is the source of our Santa Clara Creek that we rely upon for irrigation but, more than that, it was a beautiful place of abundance in wildlife, clean water, culturally significant trees and medicinal plants,” said Governor Dasheno.

Pueblo officials have urged Senator Tom Udall and Congressman Ben Ray Lujan, in helping to stop the progression of the fire. They’ve also stressed that financial and technical assistance will be needed over the next several years to address the fire’s impact.

“This is the fourth fire that has impacted our homelands and all of them have begun outside our reservation. Santa Clara alone cannot bear the extreme costs to help Mother Nature restore herself,” said Governor Dasheno.

Massive Plutonium Bomb Factory Proposed at Los Alamos National Lab

Los Alamos National Lab is proposing to build a massive plutonium bomb factory. Here is a short description of the project based on my conversations with Jay Coghland, Joni Arends, Marian Naranjo and Scott Kovac, and from various hand–outs Nuclear Watch New Mexico and Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety had prepared for community meetings and hearings that happened earlier this year to oppose this plan.

In 2003, the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) completed an Environmental Impact Statement for its proposed Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement (CMRR) project at the Los Alamos National Lab. The acronym CMRR hides the simple fact that it is a plutonium facility for expanded nuclear weapons production.

An 185,000 square–feet Radiological Laboratory, Utility and Office Building was completed in September 2009 costing nearly 1/2 billion dollars, including equipment. But this facility will not handle large quantities of special nuclear materials, like plutonium. For that purpose CMRR’s final phase would be the proposed Nuclear Facility. If built, this complex will quadruple LANL’s plutonium production from 20 pits per year to 80 pits per year. All of this will be used in making bombs to blow up places, people and animals, if such opportunities do arise.

Jay told me that the original EIS did not take into account the seismic risk that is now known. That coupled with the fact that there is a proposed 50% increase in size, citizen pressure mounted and finally NNSA prepared a hurried Supplemental EIS (SEIS), which was released on April 22.

Scott Kovac explained to me the seismic risks. In a 2007 site–wide seismic report LANL issued a warning that there was not enough information on the seismic properties of the reference rock. There is not enough information to determine seismic safety of the old buildings and the new proposed facility.

The draft SEIS has two geologic options: deep and shallow alternatives, for constructing the proposed Nuclear Facility. In the shallow alternative they would build a 17 ft thick slab on an existing weak layer of ash. The building would float in a raft–like fashion over soft, volcanic ash that forms a weak geologic layer. “Starting at about 50 ft all the way down to about 75 ft below the surface there is an extremely fragile ash layer,” Scott said. The scoping for the draft SEIS was completed by November 2010. Then April 2011 LANL released a memo that describes why the soft option is not safe to prevent the proposed building from collapse into the underlying layer: compression of the layer of soft volcanic ash by the heavy building; seismic shaking from an earthquake; and liquefaction of the volcanic ash because of water leaks. Scott also talked about the deep alternative that would involve digging out the entire soft layer and then pour concrete and build on top of that but it is a much more expensive option. “The government has not done enough seismic analysis, they do not know if there is no fault line at the proposed site. They’re designing it with an earthquake of maximum 7 Richter scale. They do not know what would happen if an earthquake of larger magnitude hits. They need to do more research and find all the faults,” Scott said.

I asked Jay, did the government in their draft SEIS took into account the latest knowledge about climate change in the American West. Then I realized they could not have as the draft SEIS was completed in November 2010 and some of the most important findings about climate change have come out after that.

On December 13, 2010 online issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the University of Arizona scientists published a major study that concludes that the American West maybe entering a prolonged 60–year drought. “The CMRR project would require 16 million gallons of water each year for its operation,” Jay told me. I asked him where do they intend to take this water from, to which he responded, “from the San Juan River and from underground wells.” In simple terms it means that the lab would take precious water away from human and animal communities in a severely drought stricken region to build nuclear bombs to blow up the planet.

Now, add wildfires to that equation. In a climate changed drought stricken American West the forests are dying too, the fires are getting larger, burning hotter and coming more frequently. Right now as I write this, in addition to the devastating Las Conchas Fire, in New Mexico, we also have the Pacheco Fire in the north that has burned more than 10,000 acres since June 18; the Donaldson Fire in southeast that started around 9 am on June 28 and has already burned 72,650 acres; and the devastating Wallow Fire of Arizona that since May 29 has burned 538,049 acres including 15,407 acres in southwestern New Mexico. Fires are everywhere in our state right now, and, we’re also planning to build nuclear bombs to blow up the planet.

July 4th is approaching—fire is on the minds of many New Mexicans. We may begin to think about how we celebrate July 4th in a climate changed American West—not with fireworks that might ignite more fires of the larger kind, but by coming together to repair our communities.

The CMRR project would cost taxpayers an estimated $6 billion.

Jay said, “We need to begin questioning whether expanded nuclear weapons production at Los Alamos is feasible in a possibly long–term drought and climate warming punctuated with catastrophic forest fires. More broadly, as we face increasing budget and resource constraints, we need to decide whether our money and water go into expanded nuclear weapons production, or do they go into repairing schools and infrastructure for the common good of society?”

Joni and Marian suggested an alternate use of that $6 billion: Jobs that would go to 12,000 individuals including from the distressed communities like Santa Clara, Cochiti and others; $50K a year for each individual for ten years—for forest restoration, watershed restoration and management, replenish our communities, and give people back their humanity. Sounded like an excellent plan to me, but instead, we’re planning to use that money to build nuclear bombs to blow up the planet.

“In 2008 we passed the Santa Clara Pueblo Tribal Resolution No. 08–16 in which the Pueblo opposes the expansion of plutonium pit production. This was in response to the Complex Transformation Supplemental Programmatic Environment Impact Statement. Along with the one–page resolution we also included 22–page comments from 256 community members, and some of which were included in congressional record. Joni and I went to Washington, DC and told them that the Santa Clara Pueblo is serious,” Marian told me. “Here we are in 2011, and they are still ignoring our comments and our beliefs. They’re arrogant and disrespectful. Its addiction, they need to go into rehab. It is heartbreaking that they disregard the sacred nature of our land. They want to make Los Alamos a permanent and perpetual nuclear bomb factory. Maybe we’re talking about genocide of pueblo people.”

What Can People Do?

I asked Jay the simple question, “what can I as an individual do right now?” He suggested, “submit your comments to oppose the CMRR Nuclear Facility project.” He explained that even though the deadline for public comment submissions was June 28, no one at the lab has been reading comments anyway, because the lab is closed due to the Las Conchas Fire. So we can assert force majeure and submit our comments. He stressed that we must submit our comments today by email at

Joni told me that Rick Wayman of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation in Santa Barbara is having to photocopy 4,500 comments that were submitted electronically through the Department of Energy website, but it bounced. So he is planning to mail the hard copies.

“People are apathetic, they need to engage right now at this crucial time and do what they can including writing letters to the editor, calling and emailing their members of congress. Most importantly the New Mexico congressional delegation must be pressured to stop this plan to make New Mexico a permanent nuclear bomb production state,” Jay said.

It’s not about stopping everything, everywhere, but also to imagine a different and more sustainable and just future for all life on earth. There exists a brighter future for New Mexico, one that is powered by the sun and the wind—not by nuclear, coal, oil and gas that our Governor Susana Martinez would like to continue to keep us locked in. The New Energy Economy, a Santa Fe based small non–profit organization has already imagined such a bright future and are fighting right now very effectively.

Why is the government pushing the CMRR Nuclear Facility project in such a hurried manner? The supplemental EIS must be retracted and the public comment period must be extended. The Las Conchas Fire has woken us up. We must now stop the maniacal plan to build the plutonium bomb factory at Los Alamos.

Further Resources

Nuclear Watch New Mexico
Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety [note: their website gets hacked frequently]
Cultural Energy
New Energy Economy

Update (July 3): The Department of Energy will accept public comment by email for the proposed CMRR–Nuclear Facility project till close of business Tuesday July 5. You’ll find a sample public comment letter including where the letter needs to be emailed HERE. This letter was prepared by Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety and is presented here by as a public service. Please update the sample letter as you see appropriate and email your comment to oppose building of this plutonium bomb factory.

Note for readers: I’d like to thank Marian Naranjo, Jay Coghland, Joni Arends and Scott Kovac for letting me tell their stories, and to Lorene Mills of Report From Santa Fe for her crucial help with this story. I’d also like to thank our colleagues in other media for interviews and for reposting this story:

AlterNet | Common Dreams | Counter Currents | Grassroots Press | Humanitarian News | Truthout and YubaNet

Press TV interviews: July 4 and June 29, 2011

Subhankar Banerjee is founder of He is currently editing an anthology titled, Arctic Voices: Resistance at the Tipping Point (New York: Seven Stories Press, April 2012) and his photographs can be seen now in exhibitions Where I Live I Hope To Know at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth through August 28, 2011 and in Earth Now: American Photographers and the Environment at the New Mexico Museum of Art in Santa Fe through October 9, 2011. He has been appointed Director’s Visitor at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton and a Fellow at Forbes College of Princeton University for fall term 2011.

Copyright 2011 Subhankar Banerjee


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