- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 3, 2008

DIXON, N.M. | The market at the heart of this little village is stuffed with locally grown produce. Fat, red radishes practically fly out of the display basket next to the cash register hours after leaving the field.

Nourished by a small river that empties into the Rio Grande, the narrow valley is dotted with farms, orchards and vineyards.

“Almost everybody grows a garden,” Sheri Kotowski said, sitting one recent afternoon under an apple tree behind the market.

Small wonder, then, that Ms. Kotowski and others in this canyon keep a wary eye on their big, mesa-top neighbor, the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

They’re fretting about a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) proposal to have the nuclear weapons lab increase its production of plutonium pits, the core of nuclear warheads, from a few each year to as many as 80.

It’s part of a restructuring plan for the eight sites in the nation’s nuclear weapons complex that the DOE says is aimed at making the complex smaller, more secure and less expensive.

“We need to consolidate and make it more of a 21st-century national security enterprise,” said John Broehm, a spokesman for DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA).

Los Alamos, the only place where pits are manufactured, produced 11 last year and will produce six this year, according to the NNSA.

Under the restructuring proposal preferred by DOE - one of several it presented for public comment this year - the nuclear operations footprint at Los Alamos would shrink by almost half.

Plutonium and other nuclear materials would be consolidated from a half-dozen sites on the sprawling property to two sites with more modern facilities.

Joe Martz, project director with the lab’s nuclear weapons program, says that would mean a dramatic improvement in safety and security.

“We are still working with many of these materials in World War II vintage buildings,” Mr. Martz said.

The movement of material would be reduced, as would the number of areas that have to be secured, he said.

And even 80 pits a year is a fraction of what was produced at Rocky Flats, the Colorado plant that was the federal government’s main pit production facility until it closed in 1989, Mr. Martz said.

“There are some that worry we will become a pit factory. Nothing could be further from the truth,” he said.

Mr. Broehm says replacement pits are needed for the submarine-launched W88 warheads that are taken apart for testing, destroying their pits in the process.

But there has been a barrage of objections to the proposal some critics call “the bombplex.”

Ms. Kotowski and others contend the DOE hasn’t done an adequate analysis of the possible effects on farmland.

The Los Alamos National Laboratory “is located within the food basket of northern New Mexico,” said the New Mexico Acequia Association, which told the DOE it is concerned about potential radioactive contamination of land and water.

Acequias are the irrigation ditches that feed farmland.

Some 40 miles northeast and downwind of Los Alamos, the Embudo Valley was reminded after a huge fire in 2000 just how close the lab is. The fire rained ash on the area and cloaked it in smoke.

A citizens’ group, in conjunction with the state Environment Department, began monitoring air and sampling soil and produce for radionuclides, in an effort to determine exposure levels.

Of concern are exceptionally high levels of strontium, cesium and plutonium high in the Sangre de Cristo mountains above the valley, at the top of the watershed.

The lab says they are to be expected, because global fallout brought to earth by rain and snow gets concentrated at such high elevations. The Environment Department suggests it could represent either routine or accidental releases from Los Alamos over decades.

In any event, Ms. Kotowski said, “If you have contamination at the top of the mountain, you can’t expect it to stay at the top of the mountain.”

The Embudo Valley Environmental Monitoring Group plans more testing this summer.

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