In 2017, with the era of Trump as US president, and increased military world tensions, there is growing fear of the possible use of nuclear weapons. One pariah state, North Korea, the DPRK, is attempting to acquire nuclear weapons as a deterrence. With these nuclear tensions in the air, it is helpful to remember the role New Mexico plays in the nuclear weapons complex. New Mexico was where the nuclear age was birthed, and remains an important part of the American nuclear weapons infrastructure. Two national laboratories, Los Alamos and Sandia, which operate as nuclear labs, are in the state, a legacy starting with the Manhattan Project that developed the atomic bomb during World War II. Another is the role of Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, which among other things houses a storage facility hosting over 2,000 nuclear weapons, the largest in the world.
I have written previously on Kirtland Air Force Base and the military research that goes on because of it. Covering almost 53,000 acres and employing over 20,000 people, Kirtland became a key air force base because of its nuclear and military research facilities such as the Air Force Research Laboratory. Kirtland is also home to the Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center. Another major part of the base is the Kirtland Underground Munitions Maintenance and Storage Complex (KUMMSC) that now stores about 2,000 nuclear warheads. Most are stored for decommissioning, to be transported to be dismantled at the nearby Pantex facility in Texas. But the ones still at Kirtland can still be activated again if ever ordered.
The official policy of the Air Force is to “neither confirm nor deny” the existence of nuclear weapons at Kirtland (Air Force letter on nuclear weapons at Kirtland). But it is an open secret in Albuquerque and elsewhere about the weapons, discovered based on publicly available data. The Albuquerque Journal, official newspaper of Albuquerque, reported recently on the storage complex, which is operated by the 898th Munitions Squadron, which reports to Air Force Global Strike Command. (1) Watchdog groups and other media also confirm this. (2)
For those of us who are living in this city with the knowledge that there are thousands of weapons of mass destruction here, it is helpful to know the history of how this city is close to the site of the largest nuclear arsenal in the world, and how it is necessary to work to a transition away from this type of living off of war.
Albuquerque, City of Secrets
The Manhattan Project involved many different sites in the state, from Los Alamos to the Trinity Site in Alamogordo. But lesser known is the place in between, Albuquerque, which played a major role because of its housing of Kirtland Air Force Base. Founded in 1941 as an Army air field, it became a key transportation facility in the Manhattan Project, as Los Alamos was just two hours away. The atomic bombs that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki were developed in Los Alamos and transported from Kirtland to ships waiting in San Francisco. Kirtland also housed what would become Sandia National Laboratories, a key research facility for science and technology but also a key designer of nuclear and other advanced weapons. Starting as a branch of Los Alamos national labs, Sandia became independent in 1949, and after World War II was used for engineering that could not be done at Los Alamos. Sandia became one of three nuclear weapons laboratories in the country, and also expanded to several other areas of research, military and civilian, but ultimately with a concentration on nuclear and weapons research . The post-war growth of Kirtland also drove the growth of Albuquerque where it was based.
Of all the military occupation that occurs in New Mexico, Albuquerque has been greatly shaped by it. Many other researchers have documented the military influence of the city. In the book Trinity’s Children, where they also called Albuquerque the City of Secrets, it described Albuquerque as:
“…a giant shallow bowl, fenced in by mountains to the east and a high mesa to the west.
…It is a city that is driven by defense dollars, one where the military, and military weapons provide more employment in the city than any other industry. It is a city that, like so many of us, grew up with the Bomb.” (3)
The growth of Albuquerque in the post war era was linked to the growth of the base and the labs. As housing of lab employees was moved off base to make room for more air force troops, the demand for housing created a housing boom (which also led to the sprawl that affects it up to today, along with the class stratification here). (4) It also shaped its culture. Working Women magazine in 1997 said that the dependence of employment from Sandia Labs, Kirtland, and the University of New Mexico made Albuquerque suited for the “easy, bureaucratic life.” (5)
For the constant reminder of the military presence here, Kirtland shares a runway with Albuquerque International Airport, one of the only civilian airports to do so. These runways are also where those nuclear weapons are transported to and from.
During the Manhattan Project, Kirtland built a storage complex for atomic bombs developed in Los Alamos. The storage facility was known as the Manzano Weapons Storage Area, also known as Manzano Base. Located near the Four Hills neighborhood in Albuquerque, it was one of six original National Stockpile Sites (NSS). Nuclear weapons were stored in deep tunnels drilled into the Manzano Mountains for that purpose. After the Pantex plant was built in Texas to manufacture nuclear weapons, Kirtland remained a transport hub for these weapons, for storage and distribution to other U.S. military bases around the world.
An interview with a Sandia Labs veteran said that the mountain bunker was assembled in the 1940’s and 1950’s when Sandia was the only warhead assembly site in the country. The cover story was that the construction was for the digging of a water supply for Sandia, and the work was titled “Project Water Supply.” Another report said that Manzano Base had become “the largest priority weapons storage area in the free world.” (6) Manzano Base kept the nuclear arsenal stockpiled throughout the Cold War.
With the end of the Cold War, and the era of disarmament that started shortly before it, the nuclear weapons storage project in Kirtland became ever more important. Starting with disarmament treaties in the 1980’s and up to the arms control initiatives of President George H.W. Bush, short-range nuclear weapons were being withdrew from bases in Europe and returned to the mainland U.S. These nuclear warheads were being decommissioned, and both the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. (later just Russia), reduced the number of nuclear weapons held. The total number of warheads held by the U.S. went from a high of 24,000 in the 1980’s to 12,500 in 1997. Ironically this decommissioning of nuclear weapons increased the role of the Kirtland base as a nuclear storage area.
In a 1985 book “Nuclear Battlefields” it estimated that Kirtland stored up to 400 nuclear weapons. Reports in 1992 based on public data estimated 2,092 warheads stored in the Manzano mountains on the base. (7) A year before, they started construction of a new $43 million storage facility, and Manzano Base was replaced by the Kirtland Underground Munitions Storage Complex (KUMSC). It covered 56 acres and was built for its changing mission. Back in 1992, the U.S. had 34 nuclear stockpile sites, 16 of them overseas. That year Kirtland was the second largest of those facilities, surpassed by one in Charleston, SC, storing 2,250 warheads. But the nearby Pantex plant in Texas became a major dismantlement site, dismantling 2,000 warheads per year, or an average of seven per day. Since Kirtland was so close and already had a storage site, it became more important in those roles and expanded them.
There were several public sources that pointed to the new facility. A 1995 report from the Russian Defense Ministry said the U.S. had plans to store 150 nuclear bombs at the facility. A 1996 FOIA request by the Albuquerque Journal stated that the underground facility “was constructed for the storage of U.S. nuclear weapons.” A DOE report listed Kirtland as a possible storage site for weapons going to Pantex. By 1997 other storage sites reduced their number of warheads, and even were shut down themselves, as by that year there were 26 locations in 15 states and seven foreign countries. In 1997 Kirtland became the top storage area in the country for nuclear weapons, storing 2,850 warheads. (8) It has remained the top storage area ever since.
The War on Terror era
After the terrorist attacks of September 11th 2001, Kirtland as a whole became more restricted for civilians. In 2002 Senator Bingaman pushed for $11 million in funding for the KUMMSC, ON TOP OF $89 million for other projects at Kirtland. Right after the start of the Iraq War in 2003, the storage complex got a $10 million upgrade in security. This brought new fencing, perimeter lighting, upgraded power systems and a reinforced concrete crust. The improvements were decided upon following the 9/11 attacks, with the report issued specifically mentioning the need to deter a terrorist attack, and the need of a concrete barrier to prevent a hijacked airliner from crashing through it. This would not detonate any nuclear weapons but could create a dirty bomb scenario, another big fear in that time. But it was emphasized that the Kirtland complex, one of the government’s two nuclear storage depots, had the best security possible.(9)
In the lead up to the Iraq War Kirtland and its nuclear storage became the site of anti-war and anti-nuclear demonstrations from local activists. After a story in the Albuquerque Journal about exercises around dirty bomb scenarios by federal management teams (10), William Clark of the New Mexico Solidarity Network (a precursor to Stop the War Machine) wrote a letter to the editor three days later about the danger from a terrorist attack from the Kirtland weapons depot. The nuclear weapons depot became a focus of a campaign by the Stop the War Machine activist group (press release). They used public protests to bring attention to the nuclear weapons in Kirtland, using many non-violent means to do that (petition). They were able to have it addressed by the Albuquerque City Council, where in 2004 one councilor publicly called for the Air Force to address the security concerns. (11)
The argument for the Iraq War was that Saddam Hussein, the ruler of Iraq, possessed weapons of mass destruction. Another big buzzword in those days. Yet here we were in Albuquerque with one of the largest arsenals of weapons of mass destruction. They said that if New Mexico became an independent nation while keeping Kirtland intact, it would be the third largest nuclear power in the world. What international bodies are calling for inspections of this facility?
In 2017 the Kirtland nuclear depot is still operating here. The number of nuclear weapons has been reduced since then, but as mentioned the ones existing can be re commissioned. This facility is just another example of the military presence in New Mexico as a whole. There are shadows of it in every part of the state. Others have pointed out how it exists in a state that is number one in so many negative social indicators, poverty a major one. So many resources going into war instead of human needs that are desperately needed in this state. Putting light onto shadows is the first way of dealing with it, and we must keep bringing these to light.
1. Reed Jr., Ollie. “KAFB home to massive nuclear storage complex.” Albuquerque Journal. April 9, 2016. https://www.abqjournal.com/756336/kafb-home-to-massive-nuclear-storage-complex.html
2. https://nukewatch.org/Kirtland.html; Helms, Harry. Top Secret Tourism. Feral House. 2007 Los Angeles. (p. 182)
3. Bartimus, Tad and Scott McCartney. Trinity’s Children: Living Along America’s Nuclear Highway. Albuquerque, NM. UNM Press. 1991. (Chapter 3: City of Secrets.)
4. Domrzalski, Dennis. “Big military science project shaped modern New Mexico.” New Mexico Business Weekly. February 3, 2012. https://www.bizjournals.com/albuquerque/print-edition/2012/02/03/big-military-science-project-shaped.html (referenced in El Lobo Rojo)
5. ”Silicon Mesa.” Working Woman. March 1997. Pg. 9-10.
6. Fleck, John. “Nukes From Europe Fill Kirtland, Analysts Say.” Albuquerque Journal. July 22, 1992. p. A1, A8;
Fleck, John. “Bombs Away.” Albuquerque Journal. August 3, 1992. Pp. A1, A6.
7. Spohn, Lawrence. “New Arsenal is Home to Awesome Nukes.” Albuquerque Tribune. July 21, 1992.
This is from public research done by William Arkin, then of Greenpeace, and Stan Norris of the National Resources Defense Council. They did an analysis of unclassified data to determine that Albuquerque was a destination for decommissioned warheads. Said Norris: “Those warheads have to be going somewhere and everything points to Albuquerque.” – Spohn, Lawrence. “Kirtland Base At Heart Of Disarmament.” Albuquerque Tribune. July 23, 1992.
8. “September/October 1997 Nuclear Notebook: Where the Bombs Are, 1997.” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. http://www.thebulletin.org/issues/nukenotes/soo997nukenote.html (accessed 08/31/2003). Also, there were changes in recent reports on what qualified as a nuclear weapon. The Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty did not count actual warheads but just the means to launch them. The U.S. and Russia preserve many warheads after the delivery devices are destroyed. Some can be reactivated. – Roberts, Chris. “NM Tops in Nuke Cache.” Albuquerque Journal. August 27, 1997. p. A1, A10.
9. Navrot, Miguel. “Tighter Nuclear Security Sought.” Albuquerque Journal. March 29, 2002. p. A1.; Navrot, Miguel. Kirtland to Shore up Nuke Security. Albuquerque Journal. June 18, 2003. pp. A1-A2
10. Fleck, John. “Feds Plan Dirty Bomb Exercise.” Albuquerque Journal. July 20, 2002.
11.Ludwick, Jim. “Councilor Wants Better Nuke Plan.” Albuquerque Journal. September 21, 2004.