Home to the scientists who built the nuclear bomb, the company town of Los Alamos, New Mexico is today one of the richest in the country even as toxic waste threatens its residents and neighbouring Espaola struggles with poverty
In August 1945, the US army dropped a secret over Japan: fully functional nuclear bombs, which instantly killed tens of thousands of people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. More than 6,000 miles away, meanwhile, in northern New Mexico, one newspaper carried a headline with uniquely local flair.
Now They Can be Told Aloud These Stoories [sic] of the Hill blared a rushed edition of the Santa Fe New Mexican. The article revealed that Los Alamos a mysterious settlement, built atop a picturesque mesa had been instrumental in the creation of these new weapons of mass destruction.
Today, Los Alamos is a secret no longer: its a small community with about 18,000 people living in the main town and a suburb called White Rock. But the nuclear lab remains, and the city is still an island in many ways: an extraordinary pocket of wealth and privilege, surrounded by some of the poorest counties in New Mexico, one of the poorest states in America.
The city is also partly toxic. The nuclear research lab still disposes of radioactive waste, and an underground plume of hexavalent chromium a contaminant linked to increased risks of cancer and made famous by Erin Brockovich has been drifting from the lab. A September 2016 report from the labs environmental management office said it could take more than 20 years and nearly $4bn (3.3bn) to clean up decades-old nuclear waste in the area.
And yet Los Alamos has more millionaires per capita than almost anywhere else in the country.
The city has always been unique. During the second world war, Los Alamos was the site of a classified research laboratory, built as part of the Manhattan Project to develop an atomic bomb. Along with Oak Ridge, Tennessee and Hanford, Washington, it was also home to a secret city built to house thousands of scientists, engineers and their families.
It was isolated, and it was also beautiful, which was something [J Robert] Oppenheimer used when he recruited people, says Jon Hunner, professor of history at New Mexico State University, referring to the theoretical physicist who led the Los Alamos lab.