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Atomic City, USA: how once-secret Los Alamos became a millionaire’s enclave via The Guardian

Home to the scientists who built the nuclear bomb, the company town of Los Alamos, New Mexico is today one of the richest in the country – even as toxic waste threatens its residents and neighbouring Española struggles with poverty

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Today, Los Alamos is a secret no longer: it’s a small community with about 18,000 people living in the main town and a suburb called White Rock. But the nuclear lab remains, and the city is still an island in many ways: an extraordinary pocket of wealth and privilege, surrounded by some of the poorest counties in New Mexico, one of the poorest states in America.

The city is also partly toxic. The nuclear research lab still disposes of radioactive waste, and an underground plume of hexavalent chromium – a contaminant linked to increased risks of cancer and made famous by Erin Brockovich – has been drifting from the lab. A September 2016 report from the lab’s environmental management office said it could take more than 20 years and nearly $4bn (£3.3bn) to clean up decades-old nuclear waste in the area.

And yet Los Alamos has more millionaires per capita than almost anywhere else in the country.

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Those who lived in Los Alamos were forbidden to talk about it. The town was not mentioned on drivers licenses, birth certificates, or postal mail. The whole area was surrounded by fences, gates and guards.

Constructed almost overnight, much of the land was simply appropriated from traditional Hispanic homesteaders and Native American communities, as well as an elite private boys school that counted Gore Vidal as one of its famous alumni.

To guard its secret, Los Alamos was built to be almost completely self-contained. There were schools, a hospital, and theatres that doubled as dance halls on Saturdays and churches on Sundays. Housing was allocated according to one’s rank at the lab. By the end of the war, it had a population of 6,000.

“Everything was run by the Army Corps of Engineers. There were no private businesses in Los Alamos until the 1950s. Nobody could own property. Nobody could own their home,” says Hunner. With its focus on the science behind the bomb, he describes it “like a university town that was controlled by the military”.

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‘It’s a stark example of the 1% and 99%’

Today Los Alamos has become one of the richest cities in America. At least one in every nine people – a whopping 12% of the population – is thought to be a millionaire. Los Alamos also regularly tops the list in terms of the best education and lowest crime levels in the state. It has one of the country’s highest concentration of PhDs.

Just 30km from this affluent island is the town of Española. Here the median household income is $33,000 and almost 30% of the population live under the poverty line. For years it has also struggled with its reputation as the heroin overdose capital of America.

Hunner describes the disparity between Los Alamos and neighbouring towns as almost inevitable. “We’re really a poor state,” he says. “So you plop this federally supported research and development lab, where you have to pay people a lot of money to stay there, and of course there’s going to be a disparity between the people who live there and the people in Española.”

But, he adds, a lot of people who live in Española work in Los Alamos. “In that whole northern New Mexico area, there is a big commute.”

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And yet references to war and nuclear weapons are everywhere. “Atomic City Transit” buses rumble down roads with names like Oppenheimer Drive and Trinity Street. “Atomic City Salsa” is on sale at a gift shop in the town centre, along with bumper stickers and playsuits for babies, including one with a mushroom cloud on the front, and the punchline (“I’ve been dropping BOMBS since Day 1”) on the reverse.

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Española: ‘It’s complicated’

Española is a 25 minute drive north-east of Los Alamos. It, too, is a small town, with a population of about 10,000. But, in many respects, it feels a world away from the nuclear island on the hill.

The road into Española passes by brightly painted murals and drive-thru fast food restaurants. Other buildings bear hand-painted signs on storefronts, selling animal feed, boots and party supplies for quinceañeras. Boldly coloured low-rider cars, which have become key cultural symbols of this part of New Mexico, rumble down the town’s wide roads.

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Secrecy, not safety

In Española’s Valdez Park, Beata Tsosie Peña, 38, is sitting with her young son near a freshly terraced slope where she will soon help plant trees as part of a new community garden.

Peña was born in the nearby Santa Clara pueblo, and is coordinator of the environmental justice programme at Tewa Women United (TWU), a civil society organisation led by indigenous women in the area (Tewa is the name of a native language group). Trujillo is also on the board of TWU.

Peña describes the Los Alamos lab as intertwined with issues of power and injustice from the very beginning. Much of the land for the lab was taken from Native communities in the 1940s, in what she says started with temporary agreements, and understandings that it would be returned after the war.

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There are also concerns about the lab’s environmental impact on neighbouring communities. Peña’s organisation is part of the Communities for Clean Water coalition created to monitor Los Alamos’s impact on water for “drinking, agriculture, sacred ceremonies, and a sustainable future”.

The September 2016 report on nuclear waste came from the the lab’s own environmental management office. The 20-plus years and $4bn clean-up costs were criticised – for being likely underestimates.

Read more at Atomic City, USA: how once-secret Los Alamos became a millionaire’s enclave

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