“All roads lead to Los Alamos,” Father Dear said. “This is the place that taught us that we can destroy one another, destroy the world, and it’s really important for us to understand how our history feeds our violence.”
While residents here seemed to understand, and tolerate, the protest, none of them joined. Some watched with indifferent curiosity, ignoring the message even as it condemned the laboratory that is their town’s lifeblood — and where research today reaches far beyond nuclear weapons, into fields like climate change, geothermal energies and cancer treatment.
Near the protesters sat Margie Lane, 89, who vividly recalled the news of the bombings and “that feeling,” she said, “that the world was no longer safe.”
Her perspective on Los Alamos and its laboratory was decidedly benign. Mrs. Lane has lived here for 38 years and her husband, now dead, worked as a mechanical engineer at the lab, a job that paid the bills and gave him purpose. “He built the gadgets the scientists conceived,” she said.
Jeff Casados, 65, a lifelong resident, said his father was one of the lab’s early scientists, doing some type of classified work, and he worked there too, on an accelerator of subatomic particles used in certain forms of cancer therapy. He said it was easy to condemn the lab when all one knows about it is its “crazy history.”
“We’re not all pro-nukes and pro-bombs,” said Mr. Casados, who retired two years ago and had come to observe the protest. “I worked to save lives, and I’m very proud of that.”
New Mexico, one of the poorest states in the country, is heavily reliant on its military bases and government research centers. Los Alamos and the Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque are among the top 10 employers in the state, which received $27.5 billion in federal money in 2013, according to a recent report by the Pew Charitable Trusts. About a quarter of the money paid for contracts, many of them for defense work developed at the labs.
But the relationship has come at a price. For years, lab workers used bunkers and canyons around Los Alamos as dumping grounds for radioactive materials — and trace amounts are still embedded in rocks and soil despite millions of dollars in cleanups.
Last year, plutonium waste leaked from a drum stored at the laboratory. In April, the federal Energy Department agreed to spend $73 million to improve transportation of nuclear waste from Los Alamos to the nation’s only permanent underground repository for such materials, in southeastern New Mexico, where a leak exposed 17 employees to radiation.
In announcing the agreement, Gov. Susana Martinez described Los Alamos and the repository known as the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant as “critical assets to our nation’s security, our state’s economy, and the communities in which they operate.”