IX: fear and loathing in los alamos - Langdon Winner

IX: fear and loathing in los alamos


But did the Village Voice’s aerodynamic bravado provide an accurate assessment?  The Cerro Grande fire that nearly charred the U.S.’s premiere nuclear weapons lab gave the sense that it did not.  This report of my evacuation from the fire was written on the fly, from various motels and greasy spoons along the escape route, and came out in Orion magazine in 2001.

According to Hindu philosophy, humanity is entering the Age of Kali Yuga. It’s predicted as a time of chaos, death, and purification. If things are not up to snuff in the universe, it prophesizes, we can expect the revenge of the deities. And we can expect the specialty of the age’s own deity, Kali herself, and that specialty is fire.
Friday May 5: the wind picks up over New Mexico’s Bandelier National Monument that flanks Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) where nuclear weapons were first developed during WWII and are now researched, tested, and stored. The U.S. Park Service is nursing a 900-acre “prescribed burn” to clear dry brush from the forest floor. It flares up.
Saturday May 6-9: firefighters battle the blaze with helicopters, air tankers, bulldozers, shovels, and rakes. The fire is dubbed the Cerro Grande, after the nearby peak, and it is growing: 3,700 acres of park service and now national forest are incinerated.



Wednesday May 10: winds gust chaotically at 50 miles per hour. The fire leaps over containment lines and flies toward the weapons lab. At the western edge of the city, the blaze bursts into a firestorm in the treetops; firefighters hurl down their gear and flee for their lives, their hoses bouncing wildly behind the escaping trucks. Houses ignite. Some, the ones with propane tanks, detonate like bombs. Loudspeakers blare: residents are given 15 minutes to evacuate. The fire reaches three LANL research areas, including the weapons-engineering tritium facility, Technical Area 16, also home to an enormous under-ground waste dump called Material Disposal Area R.
The cloud of sometimes brown, sometimes red smoke has been streaming northeast of Los Alamos into the Chicano farming villageof Chimayó, up the mountain to the forest pueblo of Truchas, and into southern Colorado, Oklahoma, and Kansas.
It's 3 a.m. I'm at home in Chimayó conducting a psychotherapy session with a client on the phone, and she is rapping away about her problems. The tube is on in the background, soundless but shrieking black and white images of 100-foot ponderosas bursting into flame. The smoke outside my window is blood red, and suddenly a caption appears on the screen: THE VOICE OF SENATOR PETE DOMENICI. I butt in: "I'm so sorry. Los Alamos is burning down. I have to end the session."  In all my years of practicing psychotherapy, I have never done this. More red smoke wafts by the window. Another tree explodes, and the senator tells us: The wind is blowing at 60 miles per hour, the fire's headed for the lab, we are grounding the slurry bombers, the firefighters are retreating, there's nothing more we can do — except pray.
Pray? There are 2,100 potential release sites in Los Alamos. There's radioactive stuff the scientists just threw into the canyons back in the 1940s. There are toxic dumps and decontamination facilities, incinerators and radioactive waste pits, shops for machining radioactive materials and decommissioned reactors. There's Tech Area 55, where weapons-grade material is fashioned into radioactive batteries, and a storage facility where nuclear weapons are shielded in concrete bunkers. There's Tech Area 15, a firing range where 220 tons of depleted uranium and high explosives have been dispersed onto open ground. And there's Tech Area 54, where 50,000 55-gallon drums containing chemical and radioactive waste are waiting aboveground for shipment to the Waste Isolation Pilot Project in southern New Mexico, and another 1 million drums sitting underground.



As if in slow motion, I rise from the couch. I take out a nylon suitcase and, without emotion, place in it three pairs of jeans, three shirts, three sets of underwear, and my cowboy boots. I do not pick out a meaningful photograph. Not even a teddy bear. Nothing meaningful. Then I walk out the door, climb into my 1977 Honda Civic, and drive into the smoke.
The wind is hurling itself toward the northeast. The evacuees have been sent south to churches, high schools, and hotels in Santa Fe. I aim toward the presumably clear air of the northwest. I have to penetrate the worst of the smoke plume to get there.
Things are eerie out here. Silence and a fog of ash hover over the Chevy pick-ups and low-riding Grand Ams creeping along Highway 76. I get to Española, the Chicano-Indian town immediately down the mesa from Los Alamos. A red-hot sun is just dropping behind the Jemez Mountains. Then I drive a few miles north and look back. I gasp. The entire valley, from Los Alamos in the west all the way up the Sangre de Cristo mountains to the east, is blanketed in black smoke. The faces of my friends in Chimayó and Truchas pass before my eyes. Linda Pedro. Max Córdova. Orlando and Mary. I do pray. I pray they have gotten out. In all, 11,000 people from Los Alamos will evacuate.  Another estimated 40,000 from White Rock, Española, the villages, Indian pueblos, Santa Fe, and Taoswill pack up their jeans and cowboy boots and bolt for some semblance of safety. I am one of those people.

The Abiquiú Inn lies one hill beyond the smoke. The sign — VACANCY — cackles fire-red, and I stop.  An unshaven scientist type stands like a battered alien at the front desk.  The clerk asks his address. "I don't think...I...have one," he spits out. I tell her I'm on the run too, and she gives me a room for free.
I try to turn on the tube. In some unkempt stab at bringing modernization to New Mexico, the Abiquiú Inn has inserted Primestar where rabbit ears used to sit. You have to be a rocket scientist -- which is what most of the other guests are — to operate the thing. I squint at the instructions, fumble with the buttons, and finally achieve a high-definition picture: but it's the news from ... oh Lord ... Atlanta. At least the headline is the fire. I see the same exploding ponderosas and now, in addition, hundreds of houses going up. For my purposes of dodging the plume, though, I need news about the wind, the kind they broadcast out of Albuquerque, pinpoint Doppler. There is no Albuquerquenews. And as befits American television reporting, it seems that suddenly, miraculously in fact, there is no lab in Los Alamos. There are apparently only pine trees and private homes in Los Alamos now.
Thursday May 11: the wind is back at 60 miles per hour.  John Peterson of the Santa Fe National Forestannounces that the fire is "zero percent contained." Twenty-five thousand acres are now gone — old-growth ponderosa and fir forests become stands of blackened skeletons; countless deer, elk, turkey, and owl burned to death or sent into terrorized flight. Two hundred and thirty-five homes in Los Alamos have been incinerated, 300 others are damaged.  Everywhere cars are melded into pavement. LANL deputy director Dick Burdick survives when the fire blazes right over his underground communications bunker. Reemerging to a scene of char and embers, he says, "This is what Hell looks like."
It's a catastrophe. A fire, yes. A terrible fire. But it also holds the possibility of being a technological disaster, maybe on the order of Three Mile Island or Chernobyl. I spent 15 years in the antinuclear movement along with the likes of Drs. Robert Jay Lifton, John Mack, and Hank Vyner, focusing our expertise as mental health professionals on the psychological ramifications of the arms race. I protested the weapons build-up of the Reagan years and later worked with Navajo and Laguna Pueblo uranium miners to gain compensation for cancer deaths. For my book, When Technology Wounds, I interviewed people made ill by exposure to health-threatening technologies: asbestos workers, Love Canal residents, Dalkon Shield users, electronic plant workers, downwinders, atomic veterans.
For survivors of invisible contaminants, I learned, outrage and uncertainty are the two predominant emotional ordeals.  Outrage because the harm was human caused; it didn't have to happen. The Cerro Grande fire didn't have to happen: the park service didn't have to set it, and the Department of Energy (DOE) didn't have to neglect its contaminated sites all these years. Uncertainty because it is impossible to know what has happened or what will happen. Has exposure taken place? To whom?  Where? Will future health be affected? Are the land and water contaminated? Uncertainty is attended by fear and hypervigilance.
For me, sitting all fearful and hypervigilant on my motel bed, uncertainty becomes the name of the game. My only lifeline is to call a friend. Luckily for me, my friends down in Santa Fehave placed themselves at the center of the firestorm: the antinuclear watchdog Los Alamos Study Group (LASG) headed by Zen Buddhist Greg Mello. Anthropologist Merida Blanco caretakes a meditation center in Santa Fe and is waffling on whether or not to leave the state. Playwright Robert Shaw, in recognition of the devilish nature of the fire, renames himself "Dr. 666" and decides that his best bet at getting life-or-death facts is to act as Greg Mello's gofer.
Information is what we need and don't have. Should I stay put at the Abiquiú Inn? Will the wind shift? And most important, what's in the smoke? Uranium? Plutonium? Americium? Strontium-90? Beryllium? Tuolene? Dioxins? Hydrochloric acid? Asbestos? Is this the Chernobylof the Age of Kali Yuga? Or is it, as lab public relations continues to insist, just a forest fire?
I told you Greg Mello is a Zen student. His most harrowing sesshin now lies before him. He takes $300 out of LASG's waning coffers and rents a Cessna 152 at the Santa Fe airport. Mello then flies into the plume with a Geiger counter. He returns with a numerical detail that is crucial for us all: at least in the parts of the smoke cloud he flies through, at the moment of his flight, there is no elevation of radiation. With this act, one wide-open eye is surely painted onto Mello's Bodhidaruma doll, indicating the awakening long sought by Zen meditation.
I'm feeling less spiritual about it. I think the guy deserves a standing ovation.
The inn is morosely quiet. The evacuees from Los Alamosare stiff, the anguish seemingly stuck in the marrow of their bones. The wind shifts from blowing toward the northeast to heading northwest. Primestar from Atlanta doesn't tell me this; I get it from Merida. I determine to head north, straight up the middle, hoping to outrun the plume. But I am heading into territory I don't know. As I drive, I suddenly feel more solitary than ever.
The San Luis Valley of central Coloradois like a displaced piece of Iowa, all flat and spread out between the Sangre de Cristo and San Juan mountain ranges, speckled with cows and mobile homes whose roofs are held down by old tires. I pass through Antonito, Romeo, La Jara. Filling up the Honda, I have this vague memory of a town in these parts called Crestone. Determining to find it, I aim north, overshoot the Crestone turnoff, double back, rampage down the wrong dirt road, and land at the Willow Spring Bed and Breakfast, a funky Victorian hotel in the middle of nowhere. It is run by a couple of Tibetan Buddhist bodhisattvas whose dedication to hospitality includes a three-course breakfast of exotic fruits, home-baked pastries, organic eggs, and fine English teas. Nothing happens here.  Except an antique wire raps against the brick exterior in an innocent fit of wind. Except I arrive in a whirlwind of stress and a relentless urgency to hog the inn's one telephone.
Friday May 12: this is the big day. The fire has penetrated LANL, and it's zero percent contained. According to Lee McAtlee of LANL's Environment, Safety, and Health Division, "Half of what you think it's going to do, it doesn't do. And half of what you think it's not going to do, it sneaks up and does." It sneaks up and rages, at 2000 degrees, toward three inflammable sites. TA 55, home of the plutonium facility: the fire rips over the heads of the firefighters, encasing them in Kali's rage. It closes in on all but one side, and thanks to the vagaries of the wind and the courageous work of human beings, it draws within inches of the razor-wire fence and stops. TA 54, where over a million barrels could explode transuranic waste into the air: some truly deft firefighting halts the inferno's advance within a half mile of the storage areas. TA 18, where nuclear experiments provide enough materials to make several bombs: the site is encircled by fire but not engulfed. New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson calls the day "a miracle."
With its temperamental carburetor and miniature tires, the Honda miraculously rattles up a rocky road to the North Crestone Trail. I take a deep breath and embark upon what the innkeepers deem will be good for me:  a hike. I head across a meadow, just now coming alive with spring wildflowers, and find a creek rushing down the mountain all cold and clear. Fording it seems a task I am incapable of enacting. I sit down on the ground. And then I see it. Lying on a piece of mica-flecked granite, a brand-new pair of elk skin work gloves. My first thought is not: someone lost their gloves, I'll return them. It's not: hot damn!  Free gloves! No. It's: Don't touch those things, they're radioactive. Then the whole thing hits me. I burst into uncontrollable sobs. First, for the ponderosas and squirrels, the trout and deer. Then I cry for the park service administrator responsible for the burn, how unspeakably tortured he must feel. Next, the evacuees at the Abiquiú Inn and all the hotels and churches in Santa Fe, the people whose homes are now rubble. Then I cry for my village. Are the river and forest contaminated? Will we be able to use the irrigation ditch again? Hunt elk? Grow corn? Will our lives ever be the same? Then I cry for myself. Will I have to leave Chimayó?
Yet another emotional ride accompanies this journey, and it isn't until I get beyond flight mentality that I sense its emergence. This one is made of conflicting realities, and the tension between them appears irresolvable. On one side, the psyche wants to believe in the comfy reality of normalcy. The fire is no big deal, it insists, that nasty plume of smoke foretelling doom is a normal cloud from a normal forest fire. The officials, after all, say everything's okay. My bodhisattvas at the inn, after all, seem untouched by fear.
Until Saturday, when suddenly every guest sitting around the breakfast table is an escapee from the fire. Conversation turns to Los Alamos. Enter normalcy's nemesis: the stripped-down reality of crisis. An older woman from Santa Fewas married to one of the early scientists at the Manhattan Project, and he died of a brain tumor. This fact reminds the couple from Taosof an epidemiological study a Los Alamosartist did revealing an inordinate number of brain cancers in his neighborhood. Everyone recalls cynically that, during Three Mile Island, the government did not deliver accurate information to the public. Nor during Love Canalor Church Rock or Times Beach.
Meanwhile, on the phone, Dr. 666 is the man with the details. Shadowing Greg Mello, he seems to know whatever there is to know. Forty-two thousand acres are burned. The fire is only 5 percent contained. Twenty percent of the city is gone, 30 percent of the lab. Indeed, Tech Areas 54, 55, and 18 emerge unscathed. But the blaze eats up 300 sites with documented surface contamination, including Tech Area 15 which is littered with chemical high explosives, toxic metals, and some 220 tons of depleted uranium. Tech Area 16's Material Disposal Area R burns and, with it, solvents, beryllium, uranium, and barium.  Many of the homes that burned were built before 1980, meaning asbestos is flung into the wind. A Montanahotshot crew of Arapahoe and Cheyennefirefighting professionals, reports that the plume does not smell like forest fire smoke; it smells like chemicals.
The reality of crisis gouges into my being like fingernails in Play Dough. I awake each morning gripped with the thought that I have lost my home to contamination. I am eating like a wild boar and losing weight, sleeping ten hours and waking up exhausted. Meridatries to console me. The anguish will be relieved on Wednesday, she says. Irate with both the park service and the DOE, the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) will issue its own report detailing radiological and chemical measurements of the air and, we hope, the soil and water. Then we will know, she says. I determine that on Wednesday I will decide if I can return home. Or not.
In the face of fear and no facts, rumors fly. A LANL scientist who lives 40 miles from the lab measured his own house for radio-toxins — and fled. The state almost evacuated Santa Fe. The state almost evacuated all of northern New Mexico. The Russian government offered the U.S. some high-tech firefighting airplanes, and Washingtonrefused the offer. The park service administrator who okayed the prescribed burn is suicidal. The realm of scientific fact seems no more certain. The promised report doesn't come out on Wednesday. To our amazement, the NMED announces it is no longer working independently, but is now in cahoots with LANL and the DOE. For whatever it might now be worth, their joint report doesn't come out on Thursday. Or Friday. (2001) [i]


This blog is a book. Please feel free to read the next chapter now. Go to the Table of Contents under the introduction on the right side of the page and click on the next chapter.



[i] Part I of Chellis Glendinning, “Fear and Loathing in Los Alamos: On the Lam from the Cerro Grande Fire,” Orion,Winter 2001.

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