Oct 20, 2008

At 85, 'Atomic Ed' Is Still Ticking Off Los Alamos

by John Burnett

Listen Now [7 min 46 sec]

Morning Edition, October 20, 2008 · The most visited attraction in Los Alamos is the Bradbury Science Museum, where visitors find replicas of the two most famous bombs in history, Little Boy and Fat Man — dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, respectively.

The next most visited attraction is the Black Hole, a government surplus store and museum whose inventory comes from the nation's foremost nuclear weapons lab — the Department of Energy's Los Alamos National Laboratory. Compared to the Bradbury Science Museum, the Black Hole's proprietor offers a very different presentation.

"My name is Ed Grothus, and I've been here almost 60 years in Los Alamos," he says. "The first 20 of those years, from 1949 to 1969, I worked in the laboratory. I came as a machinist. And I had a key role in making better — put that in quotes — 'better' atomic bombs."

Grothus is hard to miss: 85 years old, with a cloud of white hair, wearing purple camouflage pants and a peace button on his sweater. He quit the lab in 1969 over his opposition to the Vietnam War; he sold Indian curios with his wife, Margaret, for a few years, before opening the Black Hole in 1980.

"I refer to everything as nuclear waste," says the town's most famous peacenik. "It's waste from the nuclear business. But I only sell about 1 percent of what I buy. And so there's been a huge accumulation of stuff."


"Atomic Ed," as Grothus has come to be known, is a compulsive buyer at the lab's monthly auctions of surplus government property. As a former machinist, he says he can't stand to see precision equipment thrown away, which means he has everything — from oscilloscopes and galvanometers to Geiger counters and centrifuges — stacked in canyons in the Black Hole.

"I'm still buying. I'm about dead, but I'm still buying," Grothus says.

The sheer quantity of stuff on his cluttered, five-acre compound is overwhelming. Most of it was used for bomb-making, though you won't find radioactive material or classified computers. The hardware for sale is more mundane.

"These are vacuum butterfly valves," he says. "Looka here, brand new. They cost $325 apiece."

When asked who comes in to buy a butterfly valve, Grothus says, "It's very seldom."

Grothus named his store the Black Hole because, by his own admission, "everything goes in, and nothing comes out." Business is a trickle — mainly tourists, artists seeking found objects, movie set decorators and the occasional craftsman.


Atomic Ed is best known around town not as a junkman, but a rabble-rouser. Every August, in remembrance of the atomic bombs dropped on Japan, he joins out-of-town peaceniks and unfurls a large banner that says, "WE APOLOGIZE FOR THE NUCLEAR BOMB." His letters about nuclear disarmament appear in the local newspaper every few weeks.

"One bomb is too many, no matter who has it," he says. "They have to think a different way. I don't know whether humanity can get out of this nuclear trap."

The backdrop to these sentiments is a town where the national lab supports 90 percent of the local economy, a town where locals cruise along Oppenheimer Drive and get their glasses at Atomic Eye Care. Which is why, for many people here, Atomic Ed is, as former Republican state Sen. Steve Stoddard puts it, "pretty much written off as a crank."

"Oh, there's Grothus again with his one of his dang letters, or, jeez, Ed's down there with his signs," says Stoddard, who regularly shows up with fellow World War II veterans to counter-protest whatever Grothus is saying. "But you can't fault [Ed's] courage in the sense that he knows he's making people angry, and he's in a town that certainly doesn't share his feelings."

When asked for a reaction to Grothus' protests, a spokesman for Los Alamos National Laboratory answered with a resounding "no comment." The lab finds Grothus' antics tiresome, such as the time during the Wen Ho Lee spy scandal when Grothus sold lab surplus computer discs with "Top Secret" stickers on them. The FBI confiscated the computer discs, but later returned them.

Atomic Ed also offends Catholics when he dresses up in cardinals' garb and offers to celebrate critical mass at his First Church of High Technology.

But even when Grothus invites descriptions of a buffoon or a crackpot, there is something fundamentally necessary about what he does, says Kyle Wheeler, a former county counselor and a retired technical writer at the lab.

"He keeps writing these letters to the editor, and keeps bringing up issues that maybe a lot of people don't want to think about," she says. "So I sort of think of him as the conscience of the community."

A Curious Legacy

Atomic Ed probably won't be around much longer. He has cancer, which has lent a certain urgency to his crusade.

As perhaps his final creative protest, Grothus has produced two 32-foot tall granite obelisks, which he happily shows visitors. They sit inside a shipping container, the stone inscribed with a screed Grothus composed against nuclear bombs, translated into 15 languages.

Grothus tried to give the ungainly monuments to Los Alamos County, but the Art in Public Places Board politely and emphatically turned him down. Los Alamos, which is trying to soften its history, prefers the motto currently seen at the town's entrance: "Where Discoveries Are Made." The lab would rather talk about its research into fuel cells, or its training of United Nations inspectors to enforce the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

So the "Doomsday Stones" gather dust, as do the centrifuges and Geiger counters. But the Black Hole's fame seems to be spreading. A Polish tourist stops by to take a picture of Atomic Ed in front of the store.

"Thank you," he tells Grothus. "You have to sign. … Oh my God, this is very exciting."

In the town where the nuclear age began, its greatest opponent remains its greatest curiosity.


Anonymous said...

I wish I had $2 million. I'd buy Ed's place and clean it up a bit.

.. And does the lab have something against The Weekly Standard? The firewall (or DNS, whatever) redirects weeklystandard.com to a computer inside the yellow network that's not even running a web server.

Anonymous said...

Recall that Ed had to resign from LANL over some issues of misappropriate of government property. I guess that is how he started his inventory.

Frank Young said...

Was he taking home cans of organic plutonium?

Anonymous said...

I live in the neighborhood, and I cannot understand how Ed gets away with ignoring the County's ruling of a few years ago that he keep all his junk under cover and not visible from the street. His place is a big junkyard, pure and simple, in a residential neighborhood. The trees he planted in response to the County ruling are ineffectual, and mostly dead. I have passed by and heard him talking with his visitors, and the subjects and details would raise the hairs on any current clearance holder. This guy may be old and a colorful character, but is just as dangerous, on several levels, as he ever was (and that was some). I'm distressed to hear a County Councellor call him the "conscience of the community." It is only because she doesn''t know what he espouses. By the way, he didn't "create" those "obelisks" - he bought them, from China.

Anonymous said...

Ed Grothus, dangerous?

Umm, "colorful," yes.
Dangerous, no.

Yeah, it's a mess at the Black Hole, but it's part of the Los Alamos "bombtown" mystique. It's culture!

The Black Hole is a way cool place. Where else ya gonna get a brand new (well, never used and still in the box, anyway) replacement CRT for your 40 year old oscilloscope (for $5!)

Anonymous said...

I once tried to rent a house from Ed in White Rock. Not only that his junk oozes out of the Black Hole, also the yard of the house in White Rock and the garage was (and for sure still is) full of "stuff".
But I too must say that the Black Hole is an "amazing" place in the utmost meaning of the word "amazing".

Anonymous said...

Ed has some interesting stuff, but he invariably asks too high a price for his "junk". If he was willing to part with it for pennies on the dollar, a lot of the stuff would sell and wouldn't end up sitting there gathering dust, year after year. It's going to be interesting to see what actions the county takes with his place after Ed kicks the bucket.

Anonymous said...

Just a thought. How about Ed turning his "Blackhole" into green space and putting his obeisks up on the spot, in memory of himself.

Anonymous said...

He already has his own church on site. What more monument to himself does he need?

Anonymous said...

Anyone remember when Grothus' Black Hole was a pretty good Piggly Wiggly supermarket? After that, it was a kind of first-generation warehouse food store. It's interesting to note that there is no longer a general food source in LA except Smiths, and that Grothus owns an incredibly large piece of land in a major residential area. I'd like to know what the zoning is. Certainly the old church is not "commercial"?

Anonymous said...

I've known Edwardo De Los Alamos my entire life. I grew up down the street from him and have spoken with him dozens of times over the years on everything from junk to religion to politics to WMD. While I don't hold his particular political angle in very high regard, Ed certainly isn't "dangerous". He knows a good publicity stunt when he sees one (eg. organic plutonium), but his obelisks are a genuine work of art and a clear passion of an old man with very little left to do. He has spent a fortune to have them built and I hope he sees the day when they can be put up permanently somewhere.

Anonymous said...

Re: Obelisks
He also received the 2007 Allan Houser Memorial Award:

Anonymous said...

After Ed dies, Hollywood will write a movie about his life that will win an Academy Award and the Hill will then be shamed into putting up those obelisks in a public location in Los Alamos to celebrate the concept of peace, not war.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, but I don't know anyone who "celebrates" the concept of war. War exists. Peace exists too, depending on who and where you are.

Anonymous said...

I'd rather celebrate peace itself, not its mere concept.

It is in vain, sir, to extenuate the matter. Gentlemen may cry, Peace, Peace-- but there is no peace. The war is actually begun! The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms! Our brethren are already in the field! Why stand we here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!

Anonymous said...

10/22/08 11:33 AM

Si vis pacem, para bellum, i.e. If you want peace, prepare for war.


Igitur qui desiderat pacem, praeparet bellum, i.e. Therefore whoever desires peace, let him prepare for war.

Anonymous said...

When will the fire department find that 4'x 4' x 3/4" slab of magnesium down there in the safety of the Black Hole? What other hazards are there?

Anonymous said...

7:53 PM - shut the FU! Why don't u try running a business in this God for saken town?

Anonymous said...

10/22 9:47 pm: Ah - where to start?

First, "FU" is a realy bad beginning if you want to be taken seriously. Second, use of "u" for the word "you" marks you as a not-too-bright college age texter who also has no chance of being taken seriously. And third, "forsaken" is not two words.

So, you really need to get caught up on your adult communication skills, or, perhaps you just need to get sober. In eithr case, I really hope you are not actually a business owner in Los Alamos.

Anonymous said...

Well, some editors can put an arbitrary line break in the middle of a word, making it difficult to spot a stray space.

And the poster makes a good point: this town is miserable for small businesses.

Since everyone is stressed out lately, a little slack is not too much to ask. It's not constructive to shout (though their frustration is understandable), but it's not constructive to belittle people either.

Anonymous said...

Yes, 12:31 AM, everyone seems stressed out to the max. Stress at LANL has gotten to the point that LANS should seriously consider handing out Valium to all employees as they show up for work. Maybe that would improve the morale.

Anonymous said...

There is a simple measure of the success of small business in the town. It is simply the ratio of sales tax to total income. Los Alamos, by that criterion is the worst place in the nation (normalized by the sales tax rate). By shopping for bargains with such passion, lab employees have failed to support their town. It's like the town's restaurants, LA citizens count the peas per dollar and the pleasure of living is ignored. You've made your bed now you must sleep in it.

Anonymous said...

3:46 PM: "By shopping for bargains with such passion, lab employees have failed to support their town."

You have completely misunderstood the economy of Los Alamos. No one in LA is "shopping for bargains"; they are spending megabucks in Santa Fe and Albuquerque. They have to go there regularly anyway since LA has such big retail gaps, so they spend where the selections are orders of magnitude greater. A few local business have picked up on that and have tried to expand but the overall situation leaves LA retail way below "critical mass" to keep LA residents shopping here. How many LA restuarants are open for lunch and do a great business, but are closed for dinner? How many LA residents would love a few really high-class restaurants for dinner in LA? Overall, the retail and restaurant situation in LA is much worse than when I moved here in 1977. White Auto, Sears, JC Penney, TG&Y, Yellow Front, Tiano Sporting Goods, another sporting goods store, and a big bike shop, all gone. I shop each week in Santa Fe, and each month in Albuquerque, and will continue to do so. A very rich town of 16,000 can support much more, but the reatilers here are not qualified to run busnesses.

Anonymous said...

What do you suppose attracts the stupid retailers?

Anonymous said...

I've recently heard of several Los Alamos stores that are planning to shut down. The retail situation here is getting much worse. It's no surprise that this is happening when you realize that the viability of LANL is in doubt, talk of layoffs are in the air, and the US is entering a serious recession.

The next two years will likely make or break this town site (and perhaps the whole country). The decision on which path Los Alamos follows is mostly in the hands of Congress, our next Administration, and the NM political delegation. In this regards, the loss of St. Pete is an ominous sign.

Anonymous said...

1:51 pm: "The retail situation here is getting much worse. It's no surprise that this is happening when you realize that the viability of LANL is in doubt,"

You are correct about the state of LA retail but absolutely wrong about the cause. LANL will survive, and even if it doesn't, there will be thousands of rich LANL/UC retirees here who will continue to have lots of disposable income. Retail here is dying because there are no retailers here who know how to run a business, with a few exceptions.

Anonymous said...

The major reason I go to ABQ or SF to "go shopping" is not because I need more stuff, but just to get out of town. This place will drive you crazy if you don't get out frequently.

Anonymous said...

7:50 am: "This place will drive you crazy if you don't get out frequently."

Since the beginning of Los Alamos, this has been called "Hill Fever" and has been noted in historical reports dating from during WWII. It is a well-known effect and won't go away.

Anonymous said...

The slab of magnesium is still there...