Los Alamos


Written by Sue Prent

There's been a lot of talk lately about the “1%” in America, and that has played havoc with the old notion of "how the other half lives."

Despite having reframed the time-honored ratio of rich people, we have lost none of our curiosity as to how and where they live.

As they are the ones who ought to know best about the comings and goings of America’s 1%, I bow to the superior sources of the Wall Street Journal who just gave us a tantalizing glimpse.

In answer to the rhetorical question, "Where Are America's Millionaires," WSJ reveals an unexpected fact:

“The region with the highest concentration of millionaires is better known for the Manhattan Project than Saks Fifth Avenue. Los Alamos, N.M., had the highest share of millionaire households in 2014 in a ranking of more than 900 U.S. metro areas, according to a report from research firm Phoenix Marketing International released Wednesday.

More than one in nine households in Los Alamos have more than $1 million in investable assets, giving the region a higher concentration of wealth than tonier locales such as Napa, Calif., or Martha’s Vineyard, Mass”.

Who'd've thunk it?

Perhaps fearing it might put readers off of their uranium stock and cornflakes, WSJ doesn't dwell on the Manhattan Project connection. We at Fairewinds need not observe the same delicacy.

Nestled in the bosom of Los Alamos is a warren of lucrative nuclear industry and government research and development operations.

Employees of the Los Alamos Lab, Sandia, and similar research facilities can jostle through the supermarket, elbow-to-elbow with their neighbors, secure in the knowledge that no one they are likely to touch is pulling down less than six figures, even if they are just shredding documents.

This bounty in the midst of a generally depressed New Mexican economy is thanks to the continued generosity of more than seventy years of federal funding for nuclear research.

Los Alamos’ ‘golden ticket’ has bought a legacy steeped in famous names like Robert Oppenheimer and infamous ones, like "Fat Man" and "Little Boy”. It is the place where it could be argued that modern day terror had its inception.

In case you were sleeping in seventh-grade History class, Los Alamos was the birthplace of the atom bomb: the original weapon of mass destruction.

Babcock and Wilcox (B&W) is the company that was transformed in that birthing from a humble boilermaker to the mighty conglomerate of uranium and nuclear technology it is today. Now holding the contract to manage the Los Alamos Lab for the U.S. government, B&W also designed and built the Three Mile Island Nuclear Plant that melted down in 1979.

Judging from the WSJ story, the big boom business is still booming; and why not?

With a whole lot of help from federal funding, insurance waivers and an incredible postwar PR makeover, research to develop the first nuclear weapons was successfully repackaged for civilian consumption as America’s nuclear energy initiative through the Eisenhower administration’s ‘Atoms For Peace Program.’

One might even say that nuclear power enjoys a charmed "half-life" as, through all of its incarnations, the industry has maintained close ties to federal purse strings (our tax dollars), the military, and an extremely forgiving regulatory system.

Self-righteous nuclear industry voices remind us, whenever possible, that they have been beating swords into plowshares (or 'Megatons to Megawatts,' as they would have it) when they converted U.S. and soviet nuclear weapons into reactor fuel; but that ‘supply” has been exhausted and the industry must look elsewhere for its reprocessing opportunities.

Unless a nuclear arms race figures into your long-term business plan, the “Megatons to Megawatts” model was a pretty dubious platform on which to build future technology, even if you could come up with a way to safely sequester all of that stubborn nuclear waste.

…But nevermind.

There is still plenty of spent fuel piling up with no place to go but into risky new modes of energy release. Never mind the contamination, terrorism and proliferation hazards involved in storing, moving and reprocessing nuclear fuel.

Life couldn't be better in Los Alamos, the community that fission and federal funding built.