May 17th, 2000
4. The Essence of Nuclear Reliance

Elaine Marr and Eliot Moore in their courtyard. "We need to take better care of the Earth's environment." (Socorro, New Mexico)

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People tend to move to New Mexico for its natural blessings-the azure sky, dry air, warm climate, boundless plains.

"We love nature out here, but because there's so much land and so little population, nuclear facilities have been cropping up here ever since the Manhattan Project which built the first A-bomb. We worry about high levels of radiation. We don't feel safe even in Socorro." Lawyer Elaine Marr (68) looks at her husband, Elliott Moore (63), a university professor.

Elliott and Elaine's enormous home near central Socorro is built of New Mexican red clay around a large courtyard. I was offered a seat in the dining room. "It was 1972 when people here first directly experienced the fear of radiation. That was when they started firing depleted uranium shells at the firing range affiliated with the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology," said Elliot, a space physicist. Though a professor at that university, he knew nothing about its DU testing until the late 80's.

"Only the staff at the Energetic Materials Research Test Center (EMRTC) are involved in developing weapons. People in different fields know nothing about it," he adds, lamenting the high walls of secrecy at his university.

Real tanks as targets

Elaine and Elliot smiled wryly when I talked about my interview with Vice President Van Romero (44).

"His definition of 'open-air firing,' that the DU is only in the air while it flies from the gun to the catching box, is quite unique, isn't it? But it has nothing to do with reality, nor does his statement that they were using a catch box from the beginning," Elaine insisted.

Elaine and Elliot belong to a grassroots organization called Save Our Mountain. They have obtained information from former employees at the firing range and from official documents accessed under the Freedom of Information Act. "There was no shielding at all, at least for the firing done in 1970's. It was literally open-air. And real M60 tanks were used as targets. Not only that, they used the firing range closest to town."

Continuing Elaine's train of thought, Elliot said, "The main thing they wanted to know from that early testing was the effect of the speed of the DU penetrators on the impact they impart. During that time, they generated a lot of DU oxide particles. We have no idea how much was inhaled, not just by the people involved but by all of us living around here."

Admitting that the range might have started using a catch box for a shield in the 1980's, Elaine and Elliot are nevertheless convinced that plenty of smoke, undoubtedly filled with DU particles, continued to rise into the air despite the boxes.

Foundation created for cover

In 1991, around the time of the Gulf War, companies manufacturing DU munitions contracted with a university foundation, and test firing increased.

"The university uses that private foundation to hide the terms of its contract with those companies. And companies use the university's autonomy to avoid having to disclose the environmental impact of DU munitions firing. The state government supports the whole deal. There is absolutely no proper check on what they are doing."

Elaine explained the relationships among the state, the university, and the companies in a logical, lawyerly manner. She pointed out that the state is essentially a "nuclear estate," that is, economically dependent on the Los Alamos National Laboratory and the many other nuclear-related organizations that have been accumulating for decades. The university has said that firing of DU munitions stopped in 1993. "But they are still allowed to store 58 tons of DU. If they decide to use it, they can easily make up for the lost time."

Elaine and Elliot's distrust of the university seemed to speak for the silent residents of Socorro.

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