Searchlight New Mexico – The ABCs of a nuclear education

New Mexico’s local colleges are training students to work in a plutonium pit factory. What does this mean for their future — and the world’s?


Searchlight New Mexico - The ABCs of a nuclear education

Illustration by Kevin Beaty

Every day, thousands of people from all parts of El Norte make the vertiginous drive up to Los Alamos National Laboratory. It’s a trek that generations of New Mexicans have been making, like worker ants to the queen, from the eastern edge of the great Tewa Basin to the craggy Pajarito Plateau.

All in the pursuit of “good jobs.”

Some, inevitably, are bound for that most secretive and fortified place, Technical Area 55, the very heart of the weapons complex — home to PF-4, the lab’s plutonium handling facility, with its armed guards, concrete walls, steel doors and sporadic sirens. To enter “the plant,” as it’s known, is to get as close as possible to the existential nature of the nuclear age.

Over the next few years, the Los Alamos Plutonium Facility (PF-4) will undergo a paradigm shift to a large-scale production facility for weapon components, with the largest number of workers in its history. NNSA is investing billions of dollars in production-related infrastructure at Los Alamos, and the Board is continuing to urge commensurate investment in the safety infrastructure needed to ensure workers and the public are adequately protected from potential accidents at PF-4.


For 40 years, some 250 workers were tasked, mostly, with research and design. But a multibillion-dollar mission to modernize the nation’s nuclear arsenal has brought about “a paradigm shift,” in the words of the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, a federal watchdog. Today, the plant is in the middle of a colossal expansion — growing from a single, aged building to what the safety board calls “a large-scale production facility for weapon components with the largest number of workers in its history.”

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