DOE Workforce Pipelines in Northern New Mexico: Frontline worker recruitment in the US nuclear weapons complex

Shera, Katherine; Bonnet, Benjamin

Under pressure from major DOE contractors and state and local officials, many community colleges in Northern New Mexico have established DOE “workforce pipelines” during the last several years. First announced to the public in 2019, these pipelines are designed to quickly train many hundreds or thousands of workers for hazardous frontline positions at nearby Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), where efforts to modernize the US nuclear arsenal are currently underway.

Fueled by surging demand for frontline workers in the US nuclear weapons complex, these training programs offer rapid credentialing for hazardous DOE activities such as nuclear weapons manufacturing and nuclear waste remediation. Because they have been established at institutions of higher education that have an explicit mission to serve Hispanic, Native American, and/or low-income students in the region, these pipelines effectively target vulnerable communities for the most hazardous frontline positions at LANL. These positions (which involve direct and/or frequent exposure to radiation, organic solvents, heavy metals, beryllium, and other materials that are associated with the development of serious or life-threatening occupational illness) have been filled by the predominantly Hispanic and Native American residents of nearby communities for decades.

DOE pipelines thus institutionalize the informal racial and ethnic partitioning of occupational risk that has long been active at LANL. Although presented as innovative collaborations between DOE and minority-serving educational institutions, these pipelines merely perpetuate an entrenched pattern of socioeconomic exploitation in the region. DOE workforce pipelines are also being established in the vicinity of the DOE Savannah River Site near Aiken, South Carolina, in anticipation of new nuclear weapons activities at the site. As is the case in Northern New Mexico, the pipeline programs being established in this predominantly Black region of South Carolina will effectively confine the heaviest burden of DOE-associated occupational exposure within a few, historically-disadvantaged communities. These communities will thus continue to suffer the greatest burden of DOE-associated occupational disease.

Finally, DOE workforce pipelines (as they are currently implemented) sustain longstanding labor practices within DOE that needlessly expose workers to occupational risks. These practices, which require individuals to work directly with, or in close proximity to hazardous materials, pose substantial risks to workers engaged in activities such as nuclear waste remediation, and have been rejected by outside experts. Although technology that can vastly reduce or eliminate worker exposures during DOE activities has been available for decades, this technology has not been consistently adopted across the DOE complex. Indeed, DOE workforce pipelines in Northern New Mexico, which are designed to meet contractors’ demands for a continual supply of low-wage frontline workers, appear to ignore the availability of this technology altogether. Rather than stimulating investments in equipment, systems, and training aimed at eliminating needless worker exposures, these pipelines enable contractors to continue in their reliance on direct human labor, condemning yet another generation of DOE cleanup workers to life-threatening illness and injury.

DOE and other officials have promoted DOE workforce pipelines as a means of uplifting local communities. Lost in this rhetoric, however, is the way these programs and the fast-track credentials they offer fit within broader patterns of economic coercion and exploitation, including the profound failure of the state’s K-12 public education system as revealed in the 2018 decision in Yazzie and Martínez v. State of New Mexico. Regrettably, DOE pipelines to hazardous industry are rapidly becoming a dominant and well-funded higher education paradigm at minority-serving institutions in Northern New Mexico. Funded in part through Congressional appropriations to DOE, efforts are now underway to support these pipelines through federal initiatives meant to benefit historically marginalized and environmentally-impacted communities.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
Union Theological Seminary
Published Here
February 15, 2023