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So is this Pete's parting gift? Or a parting shot at the largely liberal norte? Sen. Domenici ends his 36-year career in the Senate, most of it in powerful positions, just a week or so from now. But Los Alamos National Laboratory, longtime beneficiary of his federal largesse, might have plenty to do and money coming in -- except that it's from a high-hazard and environmentally threatening line of work ...

Years of denials from LANL's public-relations army to the contrary, the lab is the new Rocky Flats. That's where plutonium triggers for nuclear bombs used to be built, in the hills overlooking Denver. A couple of decades ago, when word got through the propaganda barriers that Rocky Flats was a radioactive cesspool, Congress got the place closed down. Only now is its cleanup getting anyone's seal of approval -- and environmentalists remain skeptical. The nuclear waste, of course, came to New Mexico: It resides underground at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant outside Carlsbad.

Lest our weapons-wielding nation needed more N-bomb detonators, LANL was at the ready: Last year, the lab celebrated the completion of its first war-certified plutonium "pit" -- the thing that sets off radioactive havoc. More are being built on behalf of ever-greater military might.

And underlining LANL's role was the announcement last week from the Energy Department: Our nation's most dangerous nuclear material is being restricted, for the sake of safety, security and efficiency, to fewer sites:

u Uranium research, manufacturing and dismantling will be done mainly at Oak Ridge, Tenn.

u Plutonium warhead assembly, and disassembly, will be carried on, as it has been, at the Pantex plant near Amarillo, Texas -- not far from the New Mexico line.

u Tritium, another element of holocaust, will be produced at South Carolina's Savannah River complex -- where plutonium also will be stored.

u As for LANL, it's the center of plutonium research -- and "pit" manufacturing.

So much for Los Alamos being only an interim trigger factory, as DOE long insisted to Domenici. His successor as Senate energy chairman, New Mexico's soon-to-be senior Sen. Jeff Bingaman, should be furrowing his brows over such a turn of events.

This, uh, reform, might mean fewer workers involved in nuclear-bomb building nationwide; fewer exposed to its hazards, but fewer folks on the payroll as well. What that means to the many Northern New Mexicans on the lab payroll or those of its subcontractors hasn't been figured out in detail yet. LANL layoffs have been part of the Northern New Mexico economic reality for the past several years. With officialization of its role in the hydrogen-bomb assembly line should come stability for a certain number of employees and for the businesses they patronize.

Our area can only hope that, once Rep. Tom Udall joins Bingaman in the Senate and Barack Obama's fresh thinking pervades the White House, that the brilliance of LANL's scientists can be diversifed from its tight focus on weaponry we already have more than we need to other energy-department research: protection from other powers' nuclear threats and alternative energy come quickest to mind.
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Title Annotation:Editorials
Publication:The Santa Fe New Mexican (Santa Fe, NM)
Date:Dec 22, 2008
Next Article:THE PAST 100 YEARS.

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