Monday, May 27, 2013

Minding the Nuclear Store

Most Americans my age experienced the 1960s “duck-and-cover” drills in elementary schools, when the notion of getting blown up in a nuclear holocaust was just a part of everyday life.  The fact that the U. S., Russia, and a lengthening list of other countries still have the ability to vaporize millions with nuclear weapons has gradually faded from the public’s consciousness over the years, as the Cold War wound down following the collapse of the old Soviet Union in 1991.  Most of the college students I teach were born after the end of that era, so it’s not surprising.

But there are a few folks who haven’t forgotten.  Notable among them is a team of two U. S. war veterans and a Roman Catholic nun in her eighties who gathered in the pre-dawn hours of July 28, 2012 outside the Y-12 nuclear material complex near Oak Ridge, Tennessee.  This high-security facility is one of the main storehouses for the nation’s nuclear-weapons material:  highly enriched uranium, mainly, which is used in the fission “triggers” of thermonuclear (fusion or “hydrogen”) bombs.  The Wikipedia article on Y-12 says that we also keep enriched uranium there for other countries that don’t want to bother with storing it themselves.  Needless to say, a terrorist outfit that managed to steal some of this uranium would be in a good position to make their own nuclear weapon, so the bunker-style storage buildings with watchtowers on the ends are surrounded by several security perimeters:  barbed wire, fences, and the usual security cameras and sensors.

The three anti-nuclear protesters (for that is what they were) took bolt-cutters to the outer fence and climbed inside with the rest of their equipment, which they say consisted of “a Bible, hammers, candles, bread, white roses and blood.”  They surprised themselves by getting close enough to one of the main buildings to smear blood on its white walls, and spray-painted words on it: “The fruit of justice is peace” and “Plowshares please Isaiah.”  The latter is a reference to the famed “swords into plowshares” passage of the second chapter of the Old Testament prophet Isaiah. 

Evidently, the guards in charge of preventing this sort of thing initially believed that the noises their sensors picked up were wild animals, which occasionally cause false alarms.  Eventually, however, someone went down to check and discovered the intrusion.  The three were duly arrested, jailed (this was not a new experience for Sister Megan Rice, who has been arrested more than thirty times and served two previous jail sentences), and on May 8-9, 2013, were convicted of felony charges in federal court in relation to the break-in.  They are in jail awaiting the sentencing phase to come in September.

Whatever one thinks of the rightness or wrongness of nuclear weapons, I think most people can agree that as long as a government cares to deal with such things, it is that government’s responsibility to make sure that no unauthorized persons can steal the weapons, or nuclear material that can be used to make a weapon.  Other things being equal, I would probably rather live in a world without nuclear weapons, but that is not the world we live in now, and as with so many other things in politics, the problem lies in how we get from here—with nuclear stockpiles around the world—to a point where nobody has any. 

Nuclear protesters such as Sister Rice clearly see their roles as prophetic.  The Old Testament prophets had hard jobs:  God told them to say unpopular things that usually got them thrown in jail, or worse.  But the real prophets­, as opposed to the popular and successful false prophets, were under a compulsion to bring God’s message to the people. 

I learned of this incident via Joe Carson, a long-time Department of Energy safety officer who has his own prophetic role that his Christian faith has impelled him to play.  He has found that many areas of the U. S. government’s civil service are infected by incompetence, carelessness, and neglect of duty.  What is worse, those such as Mr. Carson who attempt to right such wrongs are often punished by their superiors for rocking the boat (going outside the organization, or “whistleblowing”), and even so-called whistleblowing defense organizations can fall victim to corruption and self-serving activities as well.  The breach of security by the protesters at the Y-12 facility revealed how vulnerable the nuclear storehouse is to attackers armed with nothing more than bolt cutters and hammers.  One wonders whether the vigor with which they were prosecuted arose more from embarrassment than from a genuine concern for national security.  Making powerful officials look bad can get you in more trouble than almost anything else.

Sr. Rice and her compatriots broke laws, it is true, but they are in a long and honorable tradition of civil disobedience that goes back at least to Martin Luther King and ultimately to the Old Testament prophets themselves.  They knew they would probably go to jail, and they did.  When convicted, Sr. Rice was quoted as saying “I regret I didn’t do this 70 years ago.” 

70 years ago, she would have been about 13, almost old enough to work in what was then a top-secret World War II uranium processing facility devoted to making the first nuclear weapons.  In Y-12’s cavernous hallways, teenage girls fresh from the surrounding Tennessee hills were hired by the dozen to sit at control panels all day, turning knobs to keep meter needles at a certain value.  The girls knew only that they got paid well and were somehow contributing to the effort to win World War II. 

Sr. Rice would have indeed had to be a prophet to have protested effectively against the U. S. effort to make the world’s first nuclear weapon with the Manhattan Project.  Almost from the beginning of the program, some of those involved harbored doubts that it was a good thing to do.  Ever since the end of the war, a small but dedicated number of people have worked to rid the world of nuclear weapons, but so far they have fought an uphill battle.  I can both wish for them to succeed, and also hope that until they do, we can keep better watch over our nuclear store than we have been doing lately. 

Sources:  I referred to several articles on various aspects of the July 28, 2012 incident:  a Knoxville News-Sentinel editorial at

an article from an alternative newspaper on the trial at,

some photos of the scene of the event posted at

and the Wikipedia articles on Y-12 and Megan Rice.  Thanks to Joe Carson for bringing this incident to my attention.

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