Nuclear Los Alamos, America’s best place to live?

 

We all love contemplating what makes a place worth living in. For some, it’s jobs and schools. For others, it’s recreation or the environment, or a reasonable cost of living. But whatever your criteria, one thing’s certain: In the transient, often rootless culture of the American West, the search for the Big Rock Candy Mountain is endless—and sometimes hard.

Luckily, the New York Times has done some legwork for us. Last week, the paper crunched stats about education, household income, unemployment, disability, life expectancy and obesity for each county in the U.S. and created this interactive map, ranking where Americans are doing well and where we’re struggling.

The criteria seek to measure quality-of-life factors that go beyond simple GDP, though they fall short of addressing environmental quality or social mobility, mostly because such data wasn’t consistently available. Still, the map paints a stark picture. Six of the ten roughest places to live are in the Appalachians of eastern Kentucky. In the West, low-ranking counties are in Navajo Nation, interior Alaska, central California and other impoverished rural areas you might expect.

There were also some surprises. Despite Wyoming’s reputation as a stark place to call home, the state did well across the board: not a single county there ranked below average. But the biggest surprise may be the county that grabbed the numero uno, best-place-to-live title. It’s in the West, yes. But if you’re thinking Boulder, think again. San Francisco? Nope.

Think desert. Think… nukes.

Yep — the highest quality of life in the U.S. could be in Los Alamos, New Mexico, a tiny 109-square-mile county northwest of Santa Fe, population 18,000, birthplace of the Manhattan Project. There, PhDs cluster in such high numbers that anyone with a master’s can feel like a second-class citizen. Sixty-three percent of residents have a college education (the national average is 28 percent), unemployment is 3.5 percent (the national average is 6.3 percent) and folks there can expect to live a few years longer than elsewhere in the country.

Shipments of nuclear waste from Los Alamos to an underground repository, like these photographed in 2011, have been stalled by leaks at the repository. Photo courtesy Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Yet how far can such rankings go? For one thing, they don’t account for the social and environmental costs of having the world’s most famous nuclear facility in your backyard. Several Los Alamos canyons served as WWII- and Cold War-era dumping grounds for heavy metals, high explosives and radioactive materials, and community groups have long been concerned that runoff from the canyons could contaminate drinking water and fisheries in the Rio Grande.

After a scorching wildfire and ensuing monsoons in 2000 exacerbated such concerns, the feds spent $14 million on erosion control. But local groups weren’t satisfied. They sued the national laboratory for violating the Clean Water Act, and in 2011 reached a settlement requiring massive environmental restoration. A leak earlier this year at the underground repository where the nuclear waste was being moved has delayed the clean ups.

Plus, though the median income in Los Alamos is $106,426, it’s an anomaly in a state with consistently high poverty and income inequality. Increasing drought and fire are persistent threats, and because New Mexico employs a high number of federal workers at Los Alamos and elsewhere, federal budget cuts have hurt the state more than most.

Nonetheless, the white-collar nuclear jobs at Los Alamos are more reliable and come with less crime and long-term socioeconomic decline than traditional boom-and-bust energy-sector jobs. HCN subscriber Val McCabe, who raised five children in Los Alamos, says there’s something to be said for living in “the kind of town where you know that your daughters will never be accosted within city limits.”

But not everyone sees the world like census-takers and data-crunchers. Some — like HCN subscriber David Gardner, who says he’d rather take a $20,000 a year job in a beautiful place than get $90,000 and a stew of toxic chemicals — base our choices on the kinds of things that can’t be measured.

Krista Langlois is an editorial fellow at NewTowncarShare News. She tweets @KristaLanglois2.

Republish Print
Comments (1)
NewTowncarShare News Classifieds
  • MOUNTAIN BIKE HEAVEN!
    Home For Sale $320,000. Apple Valley, UT. It is in a very quiet, peaceful part of the county and has the dark night sky. It...
  • GENTLE WILD HORSES NEED HOMES
    Jicarilla Mustang Heritage Alliance gentles and finds homes for mustangs. With every day, more homes are needed for wonderful loving horses. Can you Save a...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Central Colorado Conservancy is seeking an innovative and dynamic Executive Director to build on growing regional impact within the current strategic plan. This is a...
  • WESTERN MONTANA FIELD COORDINATOR
    Job Title: Western Montana Field Coordinator Reports to: Programs and Partnerships Director Compensation: $33,000 - $37,000, plus competitive health benefits, retirement savings, and vacation leave....
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Please send a resume and cover letter including salary requirements to [email protected] The Madison River Foundation is a fast growing, non-profit that preserves, protects, and...
  • CAMPAIGN OUTREACH ASSISTANT - SALMON AND STEELHEAD
    The Campaign Outreach Assistant will be responsible for grassroots efforts to organize, empower and mobilize supporters to take action in support of ICL's salmon and...
  • OWN YOUR DREAM - TAOS BIKE SHOP FOR SALE
    Gearing Up, well established, profitable, full service bicycle shop. MLS #103930. Contact: 435-881-3741.
  • DIRECTOR, TEXAS WATER PROGRAMS
    The National Wildlife Federation seeks a Director to lead our water-related policy and program work in Texas, with a primary focus on NWF's signature Texas...
  • PLANNING MANAGER - FORT COLLINS NATURAL AREAS
    The City of Fort Collins is seeking an Environmental Planning Manager in the Natural Areas Department. The Department has an annual budget of approximately $13...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Colorado Canyons Association seeks an Executive Director to join a motivated board of directors, an experienced staff, and a strong national following at an important...
  • SPLIT CREEK RANCH
    Spectacular country home on 48 acres with Wallowa River running through it! 541-398-1148 www.RubyPeakRealty.com
  • LOOKING FOR EXPERIENCED FARMER
    for 25-year certified organic vegetable farm. Business arrangements flexible. 7 acres raised beds. Excellent infrastructure. NW Montana. Contact: [email protected]
  • BEAUTIFUL CUSTOM NM MOUNTAIN VALLEY HOME
    Home/horse property on 22.8 acres, pasture & ponderosa pines, near Mora, NM. Views of the Sangre de Cristo mountains. Near fishing, skiing, back-country hiking. Taos...
  • PROJECT MANAGER
    - Project Manager nat. res. mgmt, stream restoration, conservation http://www.washingtonwatertrust.org
  • CLIMATE EDUCATION & STEWARDSHIP PROGRAM MANAGER
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a wildly enthusiastic person to develop curriculum and educational, stewardship, and ecological restoration goals for a new grant-funded program.
  • PROGRAM ASSOCIATE, INDIGENOUS COMMUNITIES INITIATIVE, NOVO FOUNDATION
    About NoVo Foundation NoVo Foundation acts from the original meaning of philanthropy: the love of humanity. The Foundation is dedicated to catalyzing a global social...
  • SEEKING ORGANIC FARMER/RANCHER TENANT
    Large garden, current garlic production, small cottage, barn cats, small herd of livestock, poultry flock; some experience necessary; Union, OR. Contact: [email protected]
  • PERU: WEAVING WORDS & WOMEN ADVENTURE
    April 2020. A 13-day women-only immersion into the culture of Peru led by Page Lambert and True Nature Journeys. Includes Machu Picchu. Graduate credit available...
  • ELECTRIC MOUNTAIN LOTS - PAONIA, CO
    Only 2 lots left in Electric Mountain Recreational Subdivision. Spectacular vistas. Visit & dine at the reopened Electric Mountain Lodge, Thurs-Sun. Contact: [email protected]
  • FOR SALE: SOUTH AUSTIN RANCH NEXT TO WILDFLOWER CENTER
    Seeking LMP/family to share one of two complexes, ranching, hunting and recreation as allowed on a City of Austin held 385 acre water quality conservation...