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Tucson Weekly Nuke Joint

A visit to the cradle of nuclear culture.

By Gregory McNamee

DECEMBER 22, 1997:  LOS ALAMOS, NEW Mexico, lies not far from Santa Fe, a town famed for its New Age service industry and expensive boutiques. Los Alamos is known for something entirely different: its contribution to what might be called nuclear culture as the birthplace of the atomic bomb half a century ago. The town prides itself on this distinction. For instance, the local oldies station, K-BOM, carries the slogan, "We're radio-active!" But thus far, Los Alamos hasn't been as successful as its better-heeled neighbor in drawing a booming tourist trade or admiring press.

Los Alamos is worth a visit, if only because it's so weird. "In New Mexico," writes journalist and first-time author Shroyer, "the town is an anomaly--a predominantly white society in the midst of a multicultural state that is mainly Hispanic and Native American." With millions upon millions of federal dollars supporting it, Los Alamos is also an island of wealth in a poor state, inhabited by well-educated, civic-minded civil servants whose business just happens to be mass destruction. Their work is slowly changing, writes Shroyer; much of it now involves cooperating with Russian scientists to make sure that no other party develops nuclear weapons, a delicate matter of stuffing a genie back into a bottle.

"The collapse of the Soviet Union has made the world not safer but more dangerous," she observes, inasmuch as destructive technology is now leaving former republics for armories in Iraq, Pakistan, and other countries with little fondness for gringos.

Shroyer's look at the people in charge of seeing that these countries don't send up the big one is illuminating, and it puts a comprehensible face on a science that's inspired profound fear for generations, with good reason. Even though the Cold War may officially be over, the work of the Los Alamos scientists continues in a technology that's far from perfect. As one rocket scientist puts it, "A cosmic ray can go through and flip a bit in the computer so that you get a completely screwball answer"; an answer that may just involve an exchange of ICBMs.

Sleep tight.

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