The Conscience of Los Alamos

Thursday, June 7th, 2007

I looked up when Ed pointed to the butte that loomed suddenly in the bend of the mountain road and said, “See. That’s where they should go, right there.”

And for an instant I imagined them towering against the big sky over Los Alamos, N.M.: two white granite “peace obelisks” 30 feet high, signaling to everyone entering or leaving the Atomic City, birthplace of The Bomb and home for 60-plus years of the national weapons lab that bears its name, that a counter-consciousness has staked its claim in the heart of the nuclear weapons industry. Their inscription begins:

“Welcome to Los Alamos, New Mexico, the United States of America, the city of fire. Our fires are brighter than a thousand suns. It was once believed that only God could destroy the world, but scientists working in Los Alamos first harnessed the power of the atom. The power released through fission and fusion gives many men the ability to commence the destruction of all life on earth. . . .”

This is the vision and nightmare of Ed Grothus, for 20 years a machinist in that very weapons lab, and for almost twice that long since then a much different sort of presence in town — peace activist, clown prince, self-proclaimed cardinal of the First Church of High Technology and, as proprietor of the Black Hole (dubbed “the most unusual place in the universe” by former astronaut Don Pettit), a dealer in old bomb casings and dented file cabinets and other, occasionally mind-bogglingly exotic discarded equipment from the lab, or what he calls “nuclear waste.”

A lot of people call their visit to the Black Hole a pilgrimage, and there is indeed something awe-inspiring, if not hallowed, about the place — an acre or so of junk and history, much of it crammed into the shell of a former Piggly-Wiggly grocery store, all of it animated by Ed himself. The 84-year-old man, weathered and craggy, with a shock of white hair, gives tours to dozens of people each day; each tour is a combination history lesson and peace lecture, and both are personal.

For instance, at the requisite stop at the high-speed Marley camera, once exquisitely state-of-the-art, with a mirror that revolves 15,000 times a second, but which is now obsolete — lab junk, out the back door with it — Ed will tell you with a fierce mixture of pride, bitterness and gallows humor that when he worked at the lab he wielded this baby.

“It takes a picture of the exact moment of the blast,” he said. “I worked in the weapons group to develop ‘better’ atomic bombs.” As he talks he hugs the camera — it was his, and it still is. And he shakes his head at the waste: a $2 billion annual budget at the lab allows scientists to discard what they’re done with after a year or maybe after a single experiment.

Ed buys the stuff at auctions and sells it to people with a wide variety of interests. A lot of artists frequent the Black Hole and poke around for inspiration. Ed also supplies movie props, beginning with “Silkwood” in 1983. It’s nuts, of course, but in such an American way — that part of the residue of weapons production winds up in anti-nuke and other movies. But Ed doesn’t linger too long on the oddness or irony.

As a machinist at R Site, “We did the hydrodynamics of implosions,” he told me. “We reduced the size of a bomb by 30 times while we increased the yield by 30 times.”

It was during the Vietnam War that his own conscience imploded. While watching war coverage on TV, he lost his protective illusion that this was honorable work, ultimately bringing good to the world. He started getting involved in anti-war activities. Before too long, the schism between work and conscience became untenable and, in late 1969, he left the lab. But he had no interest in leaving Los Alamos.

Ed prospered as a businessman, selling turquoise and silver jewelry and dealing “nuclear waste” on the side. Now he just does the latter, but his real occupation is staring down the true believers of the nuclear establishment.

“Everyone from Einstein on down failed,” he said. Failed, that is, to curb that establishment or even spread the alarm sufficiently, so that most of the human race grasped the danger they were in. “It’s terrible to have a conceit like mine,” he conceded, “to think that everything depends on me.” But he added, “Failure is not an option for us.”

And this brings me back to those obelisks, which are real. They were quarried and carved in China — a project of considerable undertaking that Ed conceived in a flash some years ago, shortly after he had acquired, at auction, two three-ton blocks of black granite from the lab, which he dubbed the “Doomsday Stones.” Inspired by a book he was reading on ancient Egypt, he decided to turn them into modern-day Rosetta Stones, which would bear an inscription in 15 languages, including, if he ever finds a translator, hieroglyphics. The obelisks, which he shipped back from China last fall and are currently in storage in a trailer on the lot of the Black Hole, would be mounted atop the Doomsday Stones . . . maybe on that butte overlooking Los Alamos.

And maybe not, of course. And maybe no matter what happens to them, it will be too late for humanity. But the proprietor of the Black Hole won’t stop trying to sound his message until it is.