By Eileen O’Shaughnessy
Attempts are underway to “modernize” the United States nuclear arsenal via increased plutonium pit production at the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) in northern New Mexico and the Savannah River Site in South Carolina. The National Nuclear Security Administration claims that aging plutonium pits, the spherical triggers to nuclear weapons, must be replaced as a matter of national security. The Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation has pushed back, stating, “Expanded pit production is not necessary to maintain the safety or reliability of the existing U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile and could feed perceptions of a nuclear arms race.”
The physical labor of manufacturing plutonium pits involves frequent exposure to and handling of radioactive and hazardous materials including beryllium, plutonium, and solvents. In order to encourage a new generation of workers to fill the nuclear industry’s most dangerous frontline jobs, including plutonium pit manufacturing, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has partnered with multiple educational institutions to create a “workforce pipeline program” to funnel students into these positions.
In New Mexico, the following institutions of higher education have initiated training programs for frontline nuclear work in their curricula: Santa Fe Community College, Northern New Mexico College, and University of New Mexico Los Alamos. These schools predominantly serve students of color and all have the designation of “Hispanic-Serving Institution.” Northern New Mexico College, located in Española, just adjacent to Los Alamos, has a student body made up of over 90 percent students of color. Three-fourths of students identify as Hispanic and over 10 percent of students identify as Native American. The majority of students are first-generation college students who are drawn from the largely rural population surrounding the 40-mile radius of the campus in Española (Northern New Mexico College website, 2022).
In a December 2022 report released by independent scholars Katherine Shera and Benjamin Bonnet (“DOE Workforce Pipelines in Northern New Mexico”), the scope of the workforce pipeline is laid out in grave detail. The authors point out that workers would be exposed to dangerous chemicals and radionuclides not only in manufacturing, but also in the process of handling, characterizing, and storing the radioactive waste. Frontline workers have a heightened risk of injuries as well as developing chronic illnesses with long latency periods such as leukemias, cancers, and neurological disorders.
It is important to note that students at these northern New Mexico schools are not being targeted for the research and development careers at LANL, which often come with less risk and exposure to toxic materials than technical work. The DOE’s workforce pipeline program is focused on filling technical, subcontractor, and frontline work, which carries a greater level of exposure. Shera and Bonnet note an existing racial stratification of jobs and thus, stratification of risk at LANL. A 2015 LANL report revealed that only about 9 percent of scientists and research and development engineers and 7 percent of postdoctoral positions at LANL identified as Hispanic or Native American, while fully two-thirds of technicians did so (Márquez, 2015). Therefore, the DOE workforce pipeline program is maintaining an existing structure of nuclear colonialism and racial hierarchy whereby communities of color are placed in the most dangerous jobs with the highest risk.
It is important to ask what exactly is being taught to students in these workforce training programs. Are they being given important information about the risks of radiation exposure and contamination, especially for people who are pregnant, and people with uteruses? Are they being given adequate protection as they enter some of the most dangerous jobs in the entire nuclear industry? For targeted marginalized communities, claims of economic opportunity in the name of national security come with a burden of risk and harm that is all too familiar in the deadly legacy of nuclear colonialism.
— Eileen O’Shaughnessy is completing a PhD at the University of New Mexico where she teaches about nuclear issues and is an organizer with the Albuquerque (Tiwa territory)-based grassroots group Demand Nuclear Abolition.