An investigative series on the Los Alamos National Laboratory by the Santa Fe New Mexican resulted in the sacking of the daily newspaper’s managing editor who edited the series, and a moratorium on nuclear technology stories by the newspaper.
The editor, David N. Mitchell, told Extra! that due to the legal settlement reached after his dismissal, he was “constrained” from saying that he was fired because of “the publisher’s concern that the series this paper did at my direction on the disposal of radioactive and chemical wastes by Los Alamos National Laboratory was unbalanced.” But the sequence of events is clear.
The Santa Fe New Mexican conducted a three-month investigation of Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL)a huge facility created during World War II to develop the atom bomb, now owned by the U.S. Department of Energy. The findings of the investigation ran in 30 articles over six days, in a series entitled “Fouling the Nest” beginning Feb. 17, 1991. “The $2 Billion Mess” was the headline of the first account of the series, subheaded “Daunting Task to Clean Up 48 Years of Neglect, Accidents Just Beginning.”
The series, written by Thom Coler. and Kelly Richmond described contamination of the community and increased leukemia risk. The series said that more than 1,000 Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) workers were exposed to radiation last year, including seven who inhaled or ingested plutonium. Follow-up editorials criticized “business-as-usual” officials and scientists.
Unfortunately for Mitchell, Robert McKinney, the New Mexican‘s Virginia-based publisher, has long been involved in promoting nuclear technology. McKinney chaired a congressional panel on the “Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy,” and represented the U.S. at the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Robert McKinney is also known for meddling in news content. A story on affordable housing problems was killed by the out-of-town publisher (Washington Post, 10/5/91), who allegedly told Mitchell there were no such problems in Santa Fe, just “people trying to live beyond their means.”
Shortly after the Los Alamos nuclear series ran, an angry McKinney met with laboratory director Siegfried S. Heckler, who had already written a guest column for the paper charging that the “negative tone of this series portrayed an inaccurate view of the laboratory.”
This meeting resulted in the inclusion of a 27-page supplement in the New Mexican, prepared by the laboratory, the Sunday after the series ran. “Los Alamos National Laboratory pursues its environmental, safety, health and security responsibilities with the same spirit it applies to its scientific work,” it began. The same day, McKinney ran a “publisher’s note” explaining that he had “devoted much of his life to ‘The Peaceful Atom.'” He called nuclear power “a vast, clean and safe alternative source of energy for our country’s future.”
Further, a former director of the laboratory, Dr. Harold Agnew, was given another guest column to attack the series, saying he “never realized to what depth reporters would stoop to misrepresent facts in order to promote their own prejudices.” He criticized the journalists for using “as references such known anti-nuclear activists as John Gofman, Physicians for Social Responsibility and the Natural Resources Defense Council, along with other unnamed local self-proclaimed experts. These individuals have made a career out of nuclear-bashing.”
As for nuclear contamination, “any activity creates wastes,” argued Agnew. “Making a dinner salad, baking a pie, burning coal, cleaning bed pans in a hospital and handling nuclear materials. Nuclear wastes are no more dangerous than many other wastes.”
On May 31, the Albuquerque Journal North broke the story of Mitchell’s firing. The Santa Fe Reporter (6/5/91), an alternative weekly, uncovered other changes in the wake of the Los Alamos series: “New Mexican reporters have been forbidden to cover stories about the nuclear industry, Los Alamos and even the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad,” a hotly controversial proposed nuclear waste depository.
Six months after the series ran, according to the Washington Post (10/5/91), an internal Los Alamos report criticized its own safety record and “essentially confirmed much of what had been in the paper’s February series.”
In Crosswinds, a monthly New Mexican journal (6/91), Stephen Kress wrote that Mitchell’s firing “illustrates the hazards of promoting independent reporting that runs counter to the owner’s philosophy.” Special projects reporter Thom Cole was shifted to desk duties; co-author Kelly Richmond resigned. At age 55, veteran journalist Mitchell is out of work. “I’m searching for employment,” he told Extra!. If Mitchell or the two investigative reporters hoped to get any formal recognition for their efforts, they’re out of luck. Publisher McKinney has ordered that the series not be nominated for any journalism prizes.