by Alicia Inez Guzmán/Searchlight New Mexico

This story is published in conjunction with The Nation

A few days after beginning a new post at Los Alamos National Laboratory, Jason Archuleta committed a subversive act: He began to keep a journal. Writing in a tiny spiral notebook, he described how he and his fellow electricians were consigned to a dimly lit break room in the heart of the weapons complex. 

“Did nothing all day today over 10 hrs in here,” a July 31 entry read. “This is no good for one’s mental wellbeing or physical being.” 

“I do hope to play another good game of chess,” noted another entry, the following day.

A journeyman electrician and proud member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 611, Archuleta had been assigned to Technical Area 55 back in July. He had resisted the assignment, knowing that it was the location of “the plant,” a sealed fortress where plutonium is hewn into pits — cores no bigger than a grapefruit that set off the cascade of reactions inside a nuclear bomb. The design harks back to the world’s first atomic weapons: “Gadget,” detonated at the Trinity Test Site in New Mexico in 1945, and “Fat Man,” dropped on Nagasaki shortly afterward.

It has been almost that long since LANL produced plutonium pits at the scale currently underway as part of the federal government’s mission to modernize its aging stockpile. The lab, now amidst tremendous growth and abuzz with activity, is pursuing that mission with single-minded intensity. Construction is visible in nearly every corner of the campus, while traffic is bumper to bumper, morning and evening, as commuters shuttle up and down a treacherous road that cuts across the vast Rio Grande Valley into the remote Pajarito Plateau on the way to the famous site of the Manhattan Project. 

But from the inside, Archuleta tells a different story: that of a jobsite in which productivity has come to a standstill. With few exceptions, he says, electricians are idle. They nap, study the electrical code book, play chess, dominoes and cards. On rare occasions, they work, but as four other journeymen (who all requested anonymity for fear of retaliation) confirmed, the scenario they describe is consistent. At any given time, up to two dozen electricians are cooling their heels in at least three different break rooms. LANL officials even have an expression for it: “seat time.”  

The lab recognizes that the expansion at TA-55, and especially the plant, presents challenges faced by no other industrial setting in the nation. The risk of radiation exposure is constant, security clearances are needed, one-of-a-kind parts must be ordered, and construction takes place as the plant strives to meet its quota. That can mean many workers sit for days, weeks, or even, according to several sources, months at a time.

“I haven’t seen months,” said Kelly Beierschmitt, LANL’s deputy director of operations, “It might feel like months,” he added, citing the complications that certain projects pose. “If there’s not a [radiation control technician] available, I’m not gonna tell the craft to go do the job without the support, right?”

Such revelations come as red flags to independent government watchdogs, who note that the project is already billions of dollars over budget and at least four years behind schedule. They say that a workplace filled with idle workers is not merely a sign that taxpayer money is being wasted; more troublingly, it indicates that the expansion is being poorly managed.

“If you have a whistleblower claiming that a dozen electricians have been sitting around playing cards for six months on a big weapons program, that would seem to me to be a ‘where there is smoke, there is fire’ moment,” said Geoff Wilson, an expert on federal defense spending at the independent watchdog Project on Government Oversight.

Given the secrecy that surrounds LANL, it is virtually impossible to quantify anything having to do with the lab. That obsession is the subject of Alex Wellerstein’s 2021 book, “Restricted Data: The History of Nuclear Secrecy in the United States.” Wellerstein, a historian of science at Stevens Institute of Technology, traces that culture of secrecy from the earliest years of the Manhattan Project into the present. Across those decades, the notion of keeping secrets from adversaries has simultaneously morphed into keeping secrets from the American public — and regulators. 

“What secrecy does is it creates context for a lack of oversight,” said Wellerstein in a recent interview. “It shrinks the number of people who might even be aware of an issue and it makes it harder — even if things do come out — to audit.” 

The code of secrecy at LANL is almost palpable. The lab sits astride a forbidding mesa in northern New Mexico some 7,500 feet above sea level, protected on the city’s western flank by security checkpoints. Its cardinal site, TA-55, is ringed by layers of razor wire and a squadron of armed guards, themselves bolstered by armored vehicles with mounted turrets that patrol the perimeter day and night. No one without a federal security clearance is allowed to enter or move about without an escort — even to go to the bathroom. Getting that clearance, which requires an intensive background investigation, can take up to a year. 

Sources for this story, veterans and newcomers alike, said they fear losing their livelihoods if they speak publicly about anything to do with their work. Few jobs in the region, much less the state (one of the most impoverished in the nation), can compete with the salaries offered by LANL. Here, journeyman electricians can earn as much as $150,000 a year; Archuleta makes $53 per hour, almost 70 percent more than electricians working at other union sites. 

Nevertheless, in late September, Archuleta lodged a complaint with the Inspector General’s office alleging time theft. He and two other workers told Searchlight New Mexico that their timesheets – typically filled out by supervisors – have shown multiple codes for jobs they didn’t recognize or perform. To his mind, the situation is “not just bordering on fraud, waste and abuse, it’s crossing the threshold.” 

After checking into the allegations, LANL officials told Searchlight that they didn’t add up. “The information we received about how craft workers report their time does not align with what you were told,” a spokesperson wrote in an email. “Any statement about falsifying time,” she added, “is extremely serious.” 

‘New Manhattan Project’

What to others is the “new Manhattan Project,” is to LANL director Thom Mason “the ultimate guarantor of our security” — replacing the plutonium in the nation’s nuclear weapons arsenal. J. Robert Oppenheimer’s original project cost taxpayers about $30 billion in today’s dollars; with overruns, the current mission will almost double that. 

Yet there remains an unavoidable question at the core of the nation’s current undertaking: Is the replacement actually warranted? “It’s sort of glass half full, glass half empty,” Mason himself acknowledged in a LANL publication only two years ago. The majority of America’s plutonium pits are about 40 years old, made at the height of America’s pit production in the 1980s. “We can’t prove that [those plutonium pits] will fail, but we also can’t prove that they will work,” he said, emphasizing the uncertainty. 

LANL — home of the world’s first atomic bomb and one of the nation’s three weapons labs — has long sought to bring industrial-scale pit production back to its campus. Those efforts began even before the Rocky Flats Plant in Colorado, which at its height produced between 1,000 and 2,000 pits per year, was formally shut down by the FBI for gross environmental violations in 1993. Over the decades since, four attempts were made to transfer some of that capability to Los Alamos. Each ended in total failure, either because of political will, lack of need, poor infrastructure or excessive costs.

This fifth attempt comes amid anxieties about China’s recent expansion of its nuclear arsenal and Russia’s war on Ukraine. Both have raised the prospect of a frightening new Cold War in which the U.S. is vying for supremacy with not one, but two global superpowers. 

“By all the normal measures our society uses to evaluate cost, benefit, risk, reliability, and longevity, this latest attempt has now already failed as well,” said Greg Mello of the Los Alamos Study Group (LASG), a respected nonprofit that has been monitoring LANL for 34 years. “Federal decision makers will have to ask ‘Will the LANL product still be worth the investment,’” Mello said, referring to the plant, which will have exceeded its planned lifetime of 50 years by 2028. 

The cogs of this arms race have been turning for years. In May 2018, a few months after President Donald Trump tweeted that he had a much “bigger & more powerful” nuclear button than North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, the Nuclear Weapons Council certified a recommendation to produce plutonium pits at two sites. 

That recommendation was enacted into law by Congress, which in 2020 called for an annual quota of plutonium pits — 30 at LANL and 50 at the Savannah River plutonium processing facility in South Carolina — by 2030. According to the LASG, the cost per pit at LANL is greater than Savannah River. The organization estimates that each one will run to approximately $100 million. 

Whether such production goals are achievable is another question: Just getting those sites capable of meeting the quota will cost close to $50 billion—and take up to two decades from the project’s start. After that, another half a century may pass before the nation’s approximately 4,000 plutonium pits are all upgraded, according to the calculations of Peter Fanta, former deputy assistant secretary of defense for nuclear matters.

“Want to know where 80 pits per year came from? It’s math. Alright? It’s really simple math,” Fanta was reported as telling the “Aiken Standard,” a South Carolina newspaper. “Divide 80 per year by the number of active warheads we have — last time it was unclassified it was just under 4,000 — and you get a timeframe.”

Insomnia, questions and quandaries

As he sat in the cramped breakroom at TA-55, Jason Archuleta detected no clear sense of purpose. The first few days he could understand, but months later, the “seat time” so distressed him that he had trouble sleeping at night. 

A U.S. Air Force veteran, it ran counter to his patriotic values. It also ran counter to common sense: LANL is on a historic hiring spree, justified by the need to modernize the nation’s nuclear stockpile and roll out several major infrastructure projects that are essential to the expansion. Suddenly, it seemed that everyone was going to TA-55, the very center of the weapons mission. Yet, looking around, Archuleta estimated that there was “over 200 years of experience sitting in a break room.” 

Archuleta’s union has been the lab’s partner ever since the earliest years of the Manhattan Project. Beginning in the 1940s, electricians from IBEW Local 611 traveled from the Rio Grande Valley, a mosaic of Hispanic and Indigenous villages, into Los Alamos to install and maintain the lab and the burgeoning city’s utilities. 

But when Archuleta was given his reassignment in July, he was torn. He had already been working at LANL for one year and was happy in his job. Besides that, he had no desire to participate in TA-55’s historic expansion on moral grounds.

He voiced his objections to Triad National Security, the government contractor that manages LANL, and was informed he had no choice. According to the “red book,” the five-year agreement between Triad and the union, workers were prohibited from striking; on the one other hand, Triad reserved the right to “hire, suspend, promote, demote, transfer, or discharge employees,” as it saw fit. 

His only option would be to “drag up” — in union speak, resign. Doing so would force him to seek work at the only other union sites with “open calls,” most of which are in or around Albuquerque, almost 100 miles from where he and his family have long made their home in the Española Valley. 

He said he called New Mexico’s two Democratic senators, Martin Heinrich and Ben Ray Luján, multiple times to relay his concerns. Each time, he left a message with his name and the details of his mom’s cancer, which animated his fears of working near nuclear materials. After a career spent at LANL, the Nevada Test Site, and Rocky Flats, where she did environmental cleanup, Bernadette Archuleta died in 2018 of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The Department of Energy paid her a settlement within months of her death, Jason Archuleta said, but never acknowledged culpability. 

The messages to his senators went unanswered. (Heinrich’s office has no record of his calls, according to a staffer; Luján’s office ignored multiple requests for comment.) Both senators have given their full support to plutonium pit production at Los Alamos. They’ve also been integral to keeping the mission — and the federal dollars it rakes in — in New Mexico. 

“I remain steadfast in my commitment to ensuring our national labs’ success and tapping into their full potential to fuel a strong economic base for our whole state,” Heinrich declared in 2019.

Unwilling to face a 200-mile roundtrip every day, Archuleta decided, grudgingly, to go to TA-55, joining the approximately 430 craft workers — electricians, carpenters, plumbers, sheet metal workers, masons, painters, welders and maintenance staff — stationed there and at a sister site, TA-50. His arrival coincided with the peak of summer. The air conditioning was spotty and there were so few chairs in the break room that some people had to stand. The journeymen wanted to work, but amid one of the nation’s most ambitious capital projects, Archuleta and his fellow electricians “were getting sent to go sit on our hands.”

‘Credible lifetimes’

Government and independent watchdogs question the mission’s very logic, often citing a widely circulated report published in 2007 by JASON, an independent and elite group of scientists that advises the U.S. government on matters of science and technology. Plutonium pits, the group stated, “have credible lifetimes of at least 100 years,” meaning the current stock was in robust middle age.  

But by the end of the next decade, the political tides had radically changed, and pit production took on renewed urgency. Congress requested a report on aging in 2019, and JASON delivered a brief and surprising about-face, one that contradicted its earlier assessment. Studies of pit aging hadn’t been prioritized by the National Nuclear Security Administration in the intervening years, JASON now said, and there wasn’t sufficient data to determine how aging might impact a warhead’s reliability. It recommended a program to do so and, in the same stroke, advised that pit production be reestablished “as expeditiously as possible.” 

Plutonium is one of the most volatile and enigmatic of all the elements on the periodic table. It ages on the outside like other metals, while on the inside, “it’s constantly bombarding itself through alpha radiation,” as Siegfried Hecker, a former LANL director and plutonium metallurgist put it. The damage is akin, in his words, to “rolling a bowling ball through [the plutonium’s] crystal structure.” Most of it can be healed, but about 10 percent can’t. “And that’s where the aging comes in.”

The renewed urgency dodges the most resounding “unanswered question at the heart of the U.S.’s nuclear arsenal,” Stephen Young, the Washington representative for the Global Security program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, wrote in “Scientific American.” “What is the lifetime of a pit?” And why hasn’t the NNSA — the federal agency tasked with overseeing the health of the nuclear weapons stockpile — dedicated the resources to finding out? 

An atomic bomb of the type nicknamed “Fat man” that was dropped by a US Army Air Force B-29 bomber on August 9, 1945 over Nagasaki, Japan is seen in this undated file photo released by the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory. (Photo by LOS ALAMOS SCIENTIFIC LABORATORY/AFP via Getty Images)

“It seems entirely possible that this was not an oversight on the part of NNSA but reflects that the agency does not want to know the answer,” Young went on. With novel warhead designs on the horizon, it was entirely plausible, he posited, that the NNSA wasn’t merely seeking to replace old pits but instead wanted to populate entirely new weapons — a desire driven less by science than by politics. 

Booms and blind spots

This uncertainty has worked in LANL’s favor, propelling the mission forward and all but securing the lab’s transformation. As Beierschmitt, the deputy director of operations, publicly described the lab’s goals this summer: “Keep spending and hiring.” 

Meanwhile, the Government Accountability Office, which investigates federal spending and provides its findings to Congress, has pointed to a gaping blind spot in the mission. A January report detailed how the NNSA lacked a comprehensive budget and master schedule for the entire U.S. nuclear weapons complex — essential for achieving the goal of producing 80 pits per year. The agency, in other words, has thus far failed to outline what it needs to do to reach its target — or what the overall cost will be, the GAO concluded.

“How much they’ve spent is pretty poorly understood because it shows up in so many different buckets across the budget,” said Allison Bawden, the GAO’s director of natural resources and environment. “We tried to identify these buckets of money ultimately tied to supporting the pit mission. But it’s never presented that way by NNSA, so it’s very difficult to look across the entire pit enterprise and say, ‘this is how much has been spent, and this is how much is needed going forward.’” The GAO includes the DOE on its biennial list of federal agencies most vulnerable to fraud, waste and abuse — and has done so since 1990. A major reason is the Möbius strip of contractors and subcontractors working on DOE-related projects at any given time. 

The DOE, for instance, oversees the NNSA, which oversees Triad National Security — a company owned by Battelle Memorial Institute, the Texas A&M University and the University of California. Triad oversees its own army of subcontractors on lab-related projects, including construction, demolition and historic preservation. And many of those subcontractors outsource their work to yet other subcontractors, creating money trails so byzantine they defy tracking. 

But one thing is known: Subcontractors will rake in billions of dollars. “We expect to be executing at least $5.5 billion in construction over the next five years and $2.5 billion in subcontracting labor and materials,” Beierschmitt said at a 2019 forum

Meanwhile, the number of employees keeps growing. The most significant increase is at TA-55, home of the plant (known officially as PF-4), “the only fully operational, full capability plutonium facility in the nation,” according to the NNSA. 

Like so much of LANL’s aging campus, it must first undergo major renovations. One includes replacing an obsolete fire alarm system able to detect fires earlier and send out audible alerts across the 233,000-square-foot plant. That critical upgrade was cause for consternation among LANL management. Only there weren’t nearly enough electricians with federal security clearances to do the job, according to an August GAO report, and as of May 2022, productivity was down by 24 percent. It was among the nine major pit-mission-related LANL projects that are now over-budget and behind schedule. The overall cost to complete five of them may go over budget by a staggering 30 to 40 percent.

“Most people think that for something so giant and so supposedly important to the nation, there would be some kind of well-thought through plan,” said Mello of LASG. “There is no well-thought through plan. There never has been.” 

Secrets on the plateau

In 1950, at the dawn of the new era of arms control and deterrence, the lab was at a crossroads. One member of the newly-formed Atomic Energy Commission not only questioned the cost overruns of two of its major construction projects — “the new explosives plant and the chemical-metallurgy laboratory” — but also the whole point of maintaining the lab in Los Alamos.  

“This is probably our last economical chance to review the desirability of keeping the weapons research at Los Alamos,” wrote AEC member Walter Hamilton. “For the several hundred workers required to man these plants, there must also be several thousand service and supporting personnel. The high operating costs, Government town problems, difficulty of getting top scientists and the bad military security of the area are all intrinsically accepted as inevitable in this decision.” 

Despite those concerns, the Los Alamos lab would not only remain, but metastasize. Over time, systems at LANL and across the U.S. weapons complex have ossified into “their own little universes,” said Wellerstein, the science historian. “And when you combine that with the kind of contractor system they use for nuclear facilities, you create the circumstances where there’s very little serious oversight and ample opportunities and incentives for everybody to pat themselves on the back for a job well done.”

As for Archuleta, the days have blurred together with numbing sameness: Get up at 3:45 a.m., drive from Española, 30 minutes away, to arrive on-site by 5:30. Wait for an escort with a security clearance and head into the hulking complex. Empty pockets, remove work boots and belt; pass through several vestibules and two machines — one to detect radioisotopes, another to detect metal. From there, go to a safety briefing and complete the daily “stretch and flex,” part of everyone’s morning warm-up ritual. 

Then the sitting begins, as he and a revolving crew of electricians are “doomed to the break room,” where they watch the hours crawl by. A four-day workweek, he penned in his journal, feels like eight. 

“Be happy. Show up to work. Do your stretch and flex and go home. And don’t ask questions,” Archuleta said. “But I wanna ask questions.”

Searchlight New Mexico is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that seeks to empower New Mexicans to demand honest and effective public policy.

Tierna Unruh-Enos

Tierna Unruh-Enos has been a multi-media journalist in New Mexico for over 20 years, and holds a Masters Degree in Documentary Journalism. She is the publisher of The Paper., The Corrales Comment and the Sandoval Signpost

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