By Vincent Ialenti

Los Alamos, New Mexico, April 2095. 

A cool breeze drifts through the ponderosa pines and stark cliffs of Zero Canyon—a natural wedge cut into old volcanic rock, eroding for millennia along North Central New Mexico’s Pajarito Plateau. A Mexican spotted owl hoots in the distance. Father Robert watches the purple and orange wildflowers flutter, as a whiptail lizard zips by. Robert walks this path each Sunday evening, as a solitary respite after the hurry of sabbath mass. Today, though, he feels introspective. It’s the fiftieth anniversary of the global abolition of nuclear weapons—a complicated milestone, to say the least, for a region formerly home to Los Alamos National Laboratory, the birthplace of the atomic bomb.

Robert would retire in just a few short weeks. It had been a long journey.

He had moved to Los Alamos in 2017, after his mother, a physicist, took a job studying nuclear weapons detonation processes at the lab’s Dual-Axis Radiographic Hydrodynamic Test Facility. Back then, Zero Canyon was named Acid Canyon. When he was 17, Robert would occasionally walk the Acid Canyon Loop with his friends after school, covertly drinking whiskey from a flask once evening turned to night. He never thought much of it, until a high school history teacher told him how Acid Canyon got its name.

In 1951, Los Alamos National Laboratory built a liquid nuclear waste treatment plant on the canyon’s rim. The facility’s “acid sewer line” discharged radioactive isotopes—of uranium, plutonium, strontium, and tritium, to name a few—into the pines below. The environmental and health consequences of this were a mere afterthought during the Cold War rush to design ever more powerful atomic bombs. The plant was decommissioned in 1966, and the US Atomic Energy Commission deemed the canyon sufficiently decontaminated the following year. In the 1970s, however, the agency (soon to be known as the US Department of Energy) discovered more areas that exceeded federal contamination limits. Only in 1984 was the canyon re-released to the public for unrestricted use. On Earth Day 2015, it became home to the Los Alamos Nature Center.

Robert initially felt heartened by Acid Canyon’s transformation from wasteland to parkland. But this feeling didn’t last long.

In 2024, Robert took a University of New Mexico class called “Atomic America.” He learned about how the 2011 Los Conchas wildfires came within three and a half miles of Area G, where the laboratory stored nuclear waste in outdoor bubble tents. He learned about how, from 1956 to 1972, workers at a laboratory power plant routinely flushed chromium contaminated cooling tower water into the nearby Sandia Canyon. This led a toxic plume—a mile long and a half-mile wide—to seep into the regional aquifer below. Unbeknownst to Robert, the plume had already crept within a quarter mile of a local water well, not far from his best friend’s house.

Growing up, Robert’s parents had pressured him to attend church and youth group. But how, he often wondered, could a town in which two-thirds of residents identified as religious work for a laboratory that made weapons that could end human life on Earth as we know it? Did his pastor not feel hypocritical driving to Sunday mass on Trinity Drive, which honored the US Army’s first nuclear weapons detonation at White Sands Proving Ground in 1945? How could parishioners be so adamant about the “sanctity of life” when it came to issues like abortion or the death penalty, while proudly working for an organization directly responsible for two atomic attacks on Japan? They even killed fellow Christians! Nagasaki was, and still remains, a major hub of Japanese Catholicism.

When Robert graduated from college, he enrolled in seminary school. He would make it his life’s work to encourage ethical searching in Los Alamos—a community that, as he saw it, hadn’t sufficiently reckoned with its legacy of ecological violence and military-industrial settler colonialism.

The sun starts to set over Zero Canyon. The distant Jemez Mountains turn a crisp orange. A southwestern willow flycatcher lands on a nearby branch and tweets loudly, interrupting Robert’s retrospections. He feels a spark of gratitude.

The southwestern willow flycatcher was declared extinct in 2040. In 2080, it was reintroduced to Los Alamos after Necrofauna International, the Deextinction Rebellion movement, and the Operation Genetic Rescue Foundation pressured Congress to allocate funds for research on how CRISPR biotechnologies, cloning techniques, and cell line cryopreservation could fill ecological niches left vacant by biodiversity loss. The funds were allocated to Los Alamos Environmental Revivification Laboratory (LAERL)—the government R&D facility formerly known as Los Alamos National Laboratory—after its nuclear weapons mission was fully abandoned. Scientific techniques refined at LAERL, in collaboration with San Diego Zoo Global and San Francisco’s Long Now Foundation, helped revive and restore several bird species that Robert remembered from his youth, including his personal favorite, the Mexican spotted owl.

This was a long time coming.

For the first five or six decades of Robert’s life, planetary temperatures rose and rose. Regional wildfires intensified and species migrated elsewhere. Some went extinct. The canyon’s pines grew limp and bare. Yet Los Alamos lab did little in response. It kept on building plutonium pits for bombs, designing new laser weapons, and developing nuclear propulsion for space missions. By 2050, 85 percent of Los Alamos residents were taking a drug nicknamed the “climate chill pill,” which helped their bodies cool off during the Pajarito Plateau’s intense summer heat waves. When temperatures rose to risky levels, a fleet of automated municipal drones would deliver the pills to residents’ doorsteps.

Unfortunately, for 68 percent of American cities, the expensive pill still remained financially out of reach. This included the nearby Española Valley, where most of Los Alamos’s lower-level administrative, custodial, and maintenance staff lived—and which averaged a full 10 degrees warmer than Los Alamos, annually.

One by one, stars begin to peek out above Zero Canyon. As the evening temperature drops, Robert feels a chill. He listens to the quiet hum of two scraper drones as they patrol the night sky, filtering out pollutants. High above the scrapers is the twinkling light of a cloud feeder. Robert squints to see it. It’s seeding the sky with sunlight-reflecting aerosols: a climate mitigation effort that, in recent years, has reduced regional temperatures back toward the levels he remembers from his youth.

Pausing for a moment, Robert feels something for the lab that he’s felt only occasionally throughout his long life. Pride.

Scraper drone technology was developed by LAERL’s Fresh Air Systems Unit. Cloud feeder technology was developed by LAERL’s Climate Interventions Directorate. These projects earned the Los Alamos systems geoengineer behind those breakthroughs the 2088 Nobel Peace Prize.

Yet the lab’s transformation from a weapons-focused organization to LAERL was, first and foremost, the result of decades of political contestation and societal values change.

After several policy successes from the global disarmament movement, Los Alamos National Laboratory’s Plutonium Pit Production Project was canceled in 2041. Four years later, the United Nations and International Atomic Energy Agency jointly dismantled the world’s last remaining nuclear warhead. In 2055 the Los Alamos County Council voted to change Acid Canyon’s name to Zero Canyon, in honor of Global Zero, an international coalition that contributed to the push for abolition. The council also voted to take down the monuments to Manhattan Project leaders Robert Oppenheimer and Robert Groves, which had stood prominently in a downtown park. They were placed in Los Alamos’s local history museum instead.

To the Council’s surprise, these decisions were met with protests. Over 2,000 demonstrators from the growing “No More Lip Service movement drove their EVs into town. They shouted slogans like “Change worlds, not just words!” and “Change systems, not just symbols!” and “Cancel living nuclear weapons scientists, not dead ones!” Joining them were members of New Mexico’s grassroots “Change the Mission” movement, which formed soon after Center for Public Integrity investigative journalists revealed that—even with the global nuclear weapons ban in place—Los Alamos lab was still spending billions of taxpayer dollars to research how the US could swiftly reassemble decommissioned nuclear weapons if the ban were to someday be breached by a foreign adversary. The lab was not only running new kinds of simulations of atomic detonations, it was also developing classified blueprints exploring the feasibility of new, hypothetical nuclear weapons systems.

After another decade of public outrage and political pressure, the federal government decided to shut down all of the lab’s nuclear weapons programs. Los Alamos National Laboratory was renamed the Los Alamos Environmental Revivification Laboratory and given its new organizational mission: to develop environmental technologies for the Army’s Climate Security Initiative and the president’s Climate Emergency Action Plan. It would also develop new techniques for remediating the US nuclear complex’s legacy of environmental injustice.

Robert wept with joy that day.

To Robert’s east, volcanic domes, hot springs, and natural gas seep slowly out of the ancient Valles Caldera. To his south, Bandelier’s cliff dwellings and petroglyphs stay etched in ancestral Pueblo dwellings dating back over 10 millennia. From the standpoint of New Mexico’s vast landscape, Robert’s life feels as but a momentary episode in a deeper, planetary drama of geological time. Still, he feels in awe of how much the Los Alamos community’s values and ideals have transformed since he first moved there in 2017.

Earlier today, Robert gave one of his final sermons for a live, in-person audience. (On weekdays, masses are decentralized, broadcast virtually to living rooms via live hologram transmitters). He told his flock how, back in the 2010s, older parishioners would sometimes express their belief that Cold War “mutually assured destruction” theories of nuclear deterrence were compatible with the “just war” doctrines of Christian theologians. The parishioners of 2095 couldn’t believe their ears.

Next, he reminded his parishioners that, theologically speaking, humankind has no property rights over the Pajarito Plateau. Genesis 2:15 spoke of humanity’s responsibility to “till and keep” the garden of the world—protecting its bounty for future generations. “Land shall not be sold in perpetuity,” said Leviticus 25:23, for the Earth is God’s alone. Pouring radioactive toxins into Los Alamos’s canyons had not only been a sin against creation, Robert asserted, but also the malicious destruction of God’s property. He ended with a quote from Pope Francis, issued 80 years earlier: “Sin is manifest in all its destructive power in wars, the various forms of violence and abuse, the abandonment of the most vulnerable, and attacks on nature.”

Robert’s sermon elicited the usual mild claps and subtle nods—but there were yawns as well. His message, once radical to the Los Alamos community, had become so conventional that some even saw it as trite. Sometimes Robert feels nostalgic for the earlier days when his progressive sermons caused certain traditionalist parishioners to exchange glances or squirm in their seats. But his nostalgia for this bygone moral landscape rarely lasts long.

“No, no,” he reassures himself. “This is what progress looks like.”

The night is dark now. Robert folds his hands, and begins to pray.

Copyright © 2024, Vincent Ialenti. This work is made available under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0).

About Vincent Ialenti

Vincent Ialenti (he/him) is a research associate at California State Polytechnic University, Humboldt’s Department of Environmental Studies. He is the author of Deep Time Reckoning (MIT Press), an ethnographic study of how Finland’s nuclear waste experts reckoned with far future societies, bodies, and ecosystems. He holds a PhD in sociocultural anthropology from Cornell University.

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