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Birthplace of the A-bomb

Nuclear New Mexico: Past and future



Six thousand Japanese Catholics died at Urakami Cathedral in Nagasaki when
“Fat Man” exploded 1,600 feet overhead during morning mass.
(Photo courtesy World War II database)

The atomic genie was let out of the bottle 70 years ago here in New Mexico. It can’t be put back in; nobody wants it to go away. Nuclear medicine, nuclear power, atomic clocks, nuclear propulsion in submarines and spacecraft … the technological advances made possible by atomic research are not to be given up. Yet the genie is still capable of destroying worlds, or at least wreaking havoc locally. The challenge today is to keep it corralled.

The earliest uses of uranium ores in New Mexico had nothing to do with radioactivity. Ground to a powder, the yellowish minerals were used by Native Americans to color designs on deerskin cradle-board coverings.

In the 1920s, low-grade uranium ores (autunite and torbernite) were recovered from old silver mines in the White Signal and Black Hawk mining districts west of Silver City for use in glazes and to color glass. Significant uranium deposits in these areas were identified during the uranium boom of the 1950s.

World War II gave birth to the Manhattan Project — a search for a super-weapon that could give its wielder a decisive victory. Building on earlier research into radioactivity and atomic physics, both Germany and the United States raced to produce an atomic bomb.

On the recommendation of J. Robert Oppenheimer, Manhattan Project manager Brig. Gen. Leslie R. Groves, Jr., chose the Los Alamos Ranch School in 1942 as the site of the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Oppenheimer became the first director of LANL. The University of California operated the laboratory under contract to the U.S., becoming one of the first Federally Funded Research & Development Centers (FFRDC), joining public and academic resources in pursuit of national security solutions.

los alamos
Sandia National Labratories stretches over 2,820 acres and employs 10,000 people. (Photo courtesy Sandia National Laboratories)

The Manhattan Project was super-secret and it moved very fast. Two models of nuclear detonation were studied — gun-type and implosion — using two different elements — uranium and plutonium. The first prototype in 1943 — named “Thin Man” after a Dashiell Hammett novel — was a plutonium gun-type bomb. It was 14 feet long, weighed four tons and was unwieldy to handle and deliver to the target.

Back to the drawing boards. Two detonation strategies were pursued — uranium gun-type and plutonium implosion. On July 16, 1945, LANL tested a uranium implosion bomb (“Gadget”) at the Trinity Site in the Alamogordo Bombing and Gunnery Range – the first nuclear weapon exploded in history. Its explosive power equaled 20,000 tons of TNT (20KT).

While the Trinity test was being prepared, a base was also being readied on Tinian Island in the Pacific, from which B-29 bombers would deliver the nuclear bombs to their targets in Japan. Preparaions were also made at Oxnard Field (now Kirtland AFB) for development, testing and assembly of bombs for delivery — this was the beginning of Sandia National Laboratory (SNL).

Just 21 days after the successful test at the Trinity Site, “Little Boy” (named to contrast with “Thin Man”) was detonated on August 6, 1945, over Hiroshima, Japan. This was a gun-type uranium bomb, and its blast was that of 15 kilotons of TNT. It was 10 feet long, 28 inches in diameter and weighed 9,700 pounds. Thirty-two were made before they were withdrawn from service in January 1951.

Three days later, on Aug. 9, “Fat Man” (named after a character in “The Maltese Falcon”) was detonated over Nagasaki, Japan, after being diverted from its original target — Kokura, Japan. This was a plutonium implosion bomb yielding 21 KT, like the one used at Trinity. It was, indeed, bigger than “Little Boy” — 5 feet in diameter and 8 inches longer, weighing more than five tons. This became the preferred model; 120 were built before they were retired in 1950.

Death, the destroyer of worlds

The Manhattan Project scientists knew they were working with a force with truly awesome potential, but the actual consequences of a nuclear explosion were not yet clear. When “Gadget” was tested at Trinity, Dr. Oppenheimer later said, “I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita: ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

Right away, there was evidence of danger to civilian populations, though those affected did not find out about it until much later. A radioactive plume of fallout from the Trinity test, according to a 2009 Los Alamos report, was tracked northeast across New Mexico, Kansas, Iowa, Indiana, New England and out into the Atlantic Ocean.

The immediate casualty list of the bombings in Japan was large, and the total mortality grew as delayed effects killed more people. It is now estimated that 66,000 people were killed instantly in Hioshima, 39,000 in Nagasaki. The injured included 68,000 in Hiroshima and 25,000 in Nagasaki. By the end of 1945, the death toll in Hiroshima had reached 140,000 (38 percent of the city’s original population), and 70,000 in Nagasaki (28 percent). Many of those not killed at the time of the blasts died of leukemia or solid cancers fostered by the radiation.

Nagasaki had a large Roman Catholic community, founded in 1549 by the Jesuit missionary Francis Xavier. The Urakami Cathedral, built in 1917, had 12,000 baptized members. The tall building was a perfect visual target for the B-29 bombardier. Six thousand Japanese Catholics died when “Fat Man” exploded 1,600 feet overhead during morning mass.

While the atom is now used peacefully in medicine, propulsion, electricity production and other purposes, there are constant reminders of its lethality. Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima are the sites of atomic power plant disasters, resulting in deaths and dead zones.

At home in New Mexico, the danger manifested itself in several ways, starting with the uranium at the core of the nuclear industry. When Patricio “Paddy” Martinez discovered uranium ore deposits on Haystack Mountain near Grants in 1950, he triggered a mining boom that continued until 1998.

New Mexico’s two National Laboratories, operated under contracts with the Department of Energy’s (DOE) National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), have been free of catastrophic nuclear incidents. There have been two “criticality incidents” at LANL.

On the global scene, there has been a broad consensus about the horror of nuclear weapons. The Canberra Commision, an international group that included former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, reported in 1996: “The destructiveness of nuclear weapons is immense. Any use would be catastrophic.”

The genie … and the corral

The study of the atom and its power has been a powerful economic stimulus for New Mexico. Money from federal sources is estimated to be 37 percent of this state’s annual revenue and 18.5 percent of the state’s total work force is federal employees.

This includes a broad range of activities: Border Patrol, military personnel, civilian Department of Defense employees, U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service, etc. The DOE is part of that mix, with LANL, SNL, WIPP and some ancillary sites to those facilities. Annual federal contracting in New Mexico amounts to $6.9 billion, of which 73percent is administered by DOE — the laboratories.

In addition to the contractors, there are more than 48,000 New Mexicans (2013 data) who work directly for the federal government, receiving $4.4 billion in compensation (about 10 percent of the total earned compensation in the state).

What if …?

What if the goal of the NNPT — abolition of nuclear weapons — became a reality next year? How would New Mexico be affected? Would 18,000 workers be suddenly laid off and the state’s economy go into a tailspin?

Not likely, but the questions show how essential these facilities have become to the state’s economy. Sandia exemplifies the dilemma our congressional delegation faces with every fiscal year’s budget.

On the one hand, there has been progress toward the stated goal of reducing and eliminating nuclear weapons. The United States has reduced its nuclear arsenal from 31,139 nuclear weapons in 1965 to 7,700 in 2013 and a projected 3,620 in 2022. The Soviet Union had 39,187 nuclear weapons in 1985; Russia has 8,500 today and is committed to 3,350 in 2022. The United Kingdom and France have followed similar paths of reduction. China continues to build its small arsenal (250 in 2013), as do Israel (80), India (90-110), Pakistan (100-120) and North Korea (6-8).

The “Life Extension Programs” (LEP) are SNL’s lifeblood for the rest of this decade. On May 13, 2015, SNL Director Paul Hommert told the Economic Forum of Albuquerque that $2.8 billion had been spent in each of the last two years upgrading the B61-12 bomb, the W88 nuclear warhead and the Mk21 fuze for ICBMs. He said work on these LEPs is expected to be completed by 2020. The B61-12 is being modernized at a cost of roughly $600,000 per year — when finished, the 400 bombs will each have cost more than the value of their weight in gold.

Seventy years later

LANL and SNL are an essential part of New Mexico’s economy. The nuclear activities at the laboratories, though conducted under the aegis of the Department of Energy, are critical to the U.S. nuclear defense program today.

Some August Events:

Aug. 6 – “A-Bomb Day” is recognized in the city of Hiroshima which holds the Peace Memorial Ceremony to console the victims of the atomic bombs and to pray for the realization of lasting world peace. The ceremony is held in front of the Memorial Cenotaph in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. Participants include the families of the deceased and people from all over the world.

Aug. 6-9 – The Campaign Nonviolence National Conference events are happening in Los Alamos and Santa Fe with various speakers and events. Visit http://paceebene.org/ for more information.

Aug. 9 – At noon the Hiroshima Peace Day Observance includes a silent memorial and discussion on nuclear weapons. Please bring your own chair. Gough Park pavilion, Silver City.

Aug. 20 – At 6 p.m., David Culp with the Friends Committee on National Legislation and other speakers will address “Nuclear New Mexico - Past and Future” at the Miller Library, 1000 W College Ave., Silver City.

What began as a search for a game-changing weapon to ensure U.S. victory in WWII has grown into a federal investment in capacity and talent that is its own reason for existence. Weapons that have long been considered unthinkable to use receive the attentions of thousands of New Mexican workers at a cost of billions annually.

The 70th anniversaries of the Trinity test and of the atomic bombing of Japan are reminders of the atomic genie’s terrible power. At the same time, events in the Middle East and Russia stall the nuclear disarmament process the nation is committed to.

New Mexicans will observe these anniversaries in several events around the state. The observances freshen issues that have been on the back burner for decades. The “plus” of good jobs and fat contracts is offset by the “minus” of environmental impacts (uranium mines and mills, growing amounts of radioactive material in substandard storage, waste issues at both LANL and SNL), accident potential (as evidenced at Church Rock and WIPP), site security issues and the morality of ever again using the “Destroyer of Worlds” against an enemy.

Those who advocate for the national goal of nuclear disarmament will search for ways in which the capacities of Los Alamos and Sandia National Laboratories can be repurposed to fill the void left when work on nuclear weapons ceases.

As Albert Einstein observed: “The release of atomic energy has not created a new problem. It has merely made more urgent the necessity of solving an existing one.”

After more than 30 years of government service (3 Army, 22 National Park Service, 7 Bureau of Land Management), Tom Vaughan edited the weekly “Mancos Times” newspaper in southwest Colorado for seven years. Since November 2010, he and his wife, Sandy Feutz, have been enjoying the salubrious climate in the lively community of Silver City. As FeVa Fotos, they “share the joy” they find in the world around them through their photography.

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