Atomic City
The current contract for the Los Alamos National Laboratory expires in September 2018, and the UC, which has been involved in the management of the lab since its inception in varying capacities, submitted a bid last year to manage the lab.

Student researchers, natives weigh consequences of growing up in Los Alamos

As a child growing up in New Mexico, Dakota Klasky did not think she could be anything other than a scientist.

Klasky, a third-year mathematics and economics student, moved to Los Alamos, New Mexico when she was 8 years old with her mother and father, who are both physicists in the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Kristie-Valerie Hoang/Daily Bruin

The Los Alamos National Laboratory is operated by Los Alamos National Security, LLC, of which the University of California is a member, along with several private companies such as Bechtel Corporation and AECOM, two engineering firms. The UC system has been either directly or indirectly involved in lab management since it was established in 1943.

More than half of Los Alamos' community members are employed by the lab, and the town is also affected by its often detrimental environmental impacts, said some students who work there.

Klasky said access to an advanced science curriculum is expected in Los Alamos because the lab attracts highly educated scientists who also work at Los Alamos High School, the only public high school in town. The United States Department of Energy, which funds the lab, also gives money annually to the local high school, she added.

However, growing up in a nuclear town changed the way Klasky and her peers understood nuclear science. She said they learned about it as scientific progress, and the community often did not address impacts on the environment or local population.

“I was conditioned to think nuclear weapons were good,” Klasky said. “People don’t really talk about the fact that nuclear weapons can be bad. Generally, it’s assumed that it’s for science, and it’s good to progress science.”

Like many students in Los Alamos, Klasky works as a summer undergraduate student researcher in the lab, conducting statistical processes and introductory physics research.

Andy Shen, a second-year applied mathematics student, was also raised in Los Alamos and attended the same high school as Klasky. Shen said he also saw a similar STEM-focused future in the lab after seeing his parents’ work.

Kristie-Valerie Hoang/Daily Bruin

Shen returns to Los Alamos during summers, where he interns at the lab. He said the town and its culture revolves around the laboratory because the majority of the residents, along with those in neighboring towns, are employed there.

“(Los Alamos) became a town primarily because of the lab,” he said. “After World War II, when it was built, the town’s role (to provide employees) became a lot more illuminated.”

Klasky said the lab owns many buildings across Los Alamos, such as an old middle school which now functions as an office building.

“It really makes you think it’s a lab town,” Klasky said.

Shen said the schools in Los Alamos are heavily STEM-focused to encourage students to consider future employment in the lab. Recruiters from the lab often visit high schools to recruit students, and Shen added that many of his peers interned at the laboratory for academic credit.

“On one hand, (this culture) puts a lot of unneeded pressure on students to do what they think is right based on the norm, but at the same time it pushes and exposes you to a lot of things,” Shen said.

Shen said he conducts research in the applied engineering and technology department of the lab. His mother worked in actinide chemical analysis and radioactive isotopes, and his father in the department of energy under the laboratory, testing environmental conditions such as soil and groundwater.

“I was fascinated by what (my parents) did, so I obviously wanted to seek a job there as well,” Shen said.

The UC's membership in Los Alamos National Security, LLC, recognizes laboratory employees as UC employees, and therefore qualifies employees' children and dependents to receive in-state tuition rates.

Shen said his ability to qualify for in-state tuition influenced his decision to come to UCLA. He added there is currently an open bid among higher education and private institutions to manage the lab, and that the UC is in consideration.

However, he is apprehensive of the bidding decisions because if the UC is not awarded the bid, he thinks it may affect whether he can continue paying in-state tuition to attend UCLA.

“It’s always something that’s been on my mind. I know my friends from my high school at UCLA and other UCs are worried about it," Shen said. "I feel like nobody knows for sure what’s going to happen.”

Klasky also said she is concerned it will affect her in-state tuition rate, and added she has not received any communication from the UC about whether or not her tuition rate will change if the UC bid is not chosen.

Lab management, however, holds implications for the local community as much as UC employees.

Charles Montano worked in the the lab as an auditor for 32 years, and said during that time he witnessed health and environmental impacts on the local community, in addition to instances of mismanagement in the lab.

Montano researched the various ways the lab impacts the local community, and the UC’s management of the lab, for 15 years. He published a book titled, "[Los Alamos: A Whistleblower's Diary](," in 2015.

Montano said his wife, who never worked in the lab but lived with Montano in Los Alamos, was diagnosed with thyroid cancer and discovered it in time to receive treatment. He added that she also ran the gastroenterology unit in the local hospital at the time, and found that incidents of thyroid cancer in the community at large, in addition to lab employees, were disproportionately high.

“The reality is that most people don’t think it’s going to happen to them,” Montano said. “New Mexico being a poor state, people are primarily concerned with getting employment and feeding their families.”

The water table for the entire state is also being contaminated by runoff carrying radioactive materials, Montano said. He works with local activist groups such as Communities for Clean Water in New Mexico that work to bring attention to local environmental impact on the lab.

Montano was not always a critic of the lab. When he was a child, he and his father used to drive to Los Alamos from their hometown in New Mexico, and Montano said he would help his father with construction jobs.

“When I was growing up, (the lab) was kind of a mystery on a hill,” Montano said. “Now, the air of mystery is gone.”