COVER

Fond memories of 'Atomic City’

BOB LEVIN July 22 1985
COVER

Fond memories of 'Atomic City’

BOB LEVIN July 22 1985

Fond memories of 'Atomic City’

COVER

President Harry Truman’s disclosure labelled Los Alamos “The Atomic City.” While Manhattan Project physicists worked at several sites around the United States and Canada, it was at the small town in northwest New Mexico—at a mesa-top location selected for its remoteness—that a collection of the best and the brightest built the weapon that ended the war with Japan and began the nuclear age. Many of those scientists, including laboratory director J. Robert Oppenheimer, quickly left “the Hill” to take up teaching posts; some of them voiced regrets over the weapon they had created, even suggesting that Los Alamos should be shut down. But others believed it was too late to stuff the genie back in the bottle. Recalled 76-year-old Norris Bradbury, who in 1945 replaced Oppenheimer as director: “The Russians were already getting into the act on nuclear weapons. The British were in the act. The Germans knew how to do it. So where would it have gotten us to close the place down?”

Atomic Bombs Drop on Japan Los Alamos Secret Disclosed by Truman —headline in the Santa Fe New Mexican, Aug. 6,1945

Modern: During his 25-year tenure Bradbury led the lab out of its postwar slump, and the town grew along with it. Los Alamos now is a combined city and county of 18,500 people with the highest per capita income in the state and one the highest concentrations of PhDs anywhere. Apart from its still-spectacular setting, it bears little resemblance to the fenced-in jerry built encampment of wartime. The main gatehouse has become a Mexican restaurant.

On the site of the old wooden laboratories stands a modern the

new lab—operated by the University of California for the U.S. department of energy—is a concrete complex sprawling across 43 square miles on a higher mesa, and its work includes peaceful programs in solar energy, space sciences and medical research.

But the main business of Los Alamos is still weapons. About 62 per cent of the lab’s budget is defence-oriented, includ-

ing work on state-of-the-art nuclear warheads and on President Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative—the so-called “Star Wars” program. One aspect is the $15-million-a-year White Horse project, designed to produce a space-based neutral-particle beam accelerator—an alternative to the laser—to destroy enemy missiles. “This is a gamble,” said Thomas Starke, manager of

the neutral-particle project. “This is an adventure.”

Genocide: Not all residents are enthusiastic. Physicist John Manley, for one, a veteran of the Manhattan Project, calls Star Wars “a technical fix to a political problem” and he says that nuclear proliferation is a formula for “mass genocide.” But those sentiments are held by only a small minority in Los

Alamos. A peace group from Santa Fe, 50 km away, distributes leaflets periodically outside the lab, but Los Alamos’s own fledgling freeze movement, which numbered at most about 25 members, has largely melted. The Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church seemed to speak for the majority of the town in a 1983 statement calling the freeze a “simplistic formulation” which “fails to rec-

ognize the need to maintain a stable and credible deterrent force at all stages of disarmament.”

Nostalgia: There is even greater agreement on events of the past, particularly among original residents. They remember the war years fondly, a nostalgia for younger days that happened also to have been important ones, and they make no apologies. On the contrary, the old-timers say, the development of the atom bomb seemed inevitable, and it was their duty —performed under extraordinarily trying circumstances—to ensure that the United States had it first. Many had lost family and friends in overseas fighting; they were proud to help end a hideous war which, as far as they knew, the Japanese would not otherwise have abandoned without a long struggle. Said 71-yearold Elsie Pierce, who served in the Women’s Army Corps at Los Alamos: “We saved many lives, American and Japanese.”

But for all the belief in their war work, there are ways in which residents seem to downplay the town’s bomb-building role, past and present. The Los Alamos County Chamber of Commerce no longer includes The Atomic City on its official stationery, and citizens are quick to point out the lab’s nonmilitary research. Despite some outsiders’ impressions—“People think we glow,” said one physicist’s wife—residents say Los Alamos is simply a nice place to

live, with good schools, good skiing and sunny winters. “Every year,” said Jane Mitchell, chamber of commerce director, “it becomes more like other cities.” Still, no matter how unremarkable it appears, Los Alamos will always be the once-secret city on the mesa, the birthplace of the A-bomb—the little town that changed the world.

-BOB LEVIN in Los Alamos.