It was the 82-year-old nun who caught my attention. In the early morning hours of July 28, Sister Megan Rice, Michael R. Walli, and Greg Boertje-Obed of the peace group Plowshares cut through fences at the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. The group spray-painted protest messages, hung banners, and splashed blood on the national facility, which manufactures US nuclear weapons and stockpiles highly enriched uranium. This act of civil disobedience is the latest in a series of such protests since 1980 when the group was founded to raise public awareness of the continuing dangers of nuclear weapons.
Small protests at nuclear and military facilities rarely get much media attention. But this one is raising more concerns than others have in the past, because at Oak Ridge the protesters were able to break through security at one of the most significant and oldest bomb-making plants in the country. It was at this plant where highly enriched uranium was manufactured for use in the Hiroshima bomb dropped on August 6, 1945, at the end of World War II. The “Oak Ridge Three,” as the activists will come to be known, marked the Hiroshima anniversary with vandalism — and an extraordinary breach of security at the Y-12 plant. In their statement, the trio also protested the planned construction of a new $6.5 billion uranium-processing facility next to Y-12.
The National Nuclear Security Administration has acknowledged the seriousness of the action, which involved the protesters walking into a high-security zone of the plant, calling the security breach “unprecedented.” The government response, so far, has been to commend the independent security contractor, WSI, for its subsequent actions, including a weeklong “security stand-down,” a halt to weapons production, and mandatory refresher training for all security staff.
Nonproliferation policy experts, on the other hand, will draw attention to the relative ease with which these unarmed, unsophisticated protesters could cut through a fence and walk into the heart of the facility. They will point to the event as further evidence that nuclear security — that is, the securing of highly enriched uranium and plutonium — should be a top priority because it is the only way to prevent terrorist groups from acquiring nuclear bomb-making material. They will question the use of private contractors to provide security at facilities that manufacture and store the government’s most dangerous military material. In fact, the Oak Ridge intrusion took place just a few days after WSI announced plans to eliminate about 50 security jobs, including 34 security police officers at Y-12. I presume that others will also question, as I do, the need for a nuclear bomb-making plant at all — especially at a time when the United States, Russia, and other countries are talking about vastly reducing their nuclear arsenals and when former government leaders, and even the US president, are calling for a “world free of nuclear weapons.”
I was struck by the image of three white-haired activists from a movement that began in the early 1980s at the height of the Cold War. Some might find it odd that an 82-year-old nun and her companions — aged 63 and 57 — are protesting nuclear weapons. In a way, though, the weapons themselves are just as odd these days. They are aging, too. But, unlike the protesters, nuclear weapons are no longer relevant, and they need to be quietly laid to rest. Instead of creating new materials to renovate old warheads, it is time to let them go gently into that good night. In other words, it is time for nuclear weapons to retire and, in time, to be buried.
And who better to bury them than those who grew up with them? Aging baby-boomers are also Cold War babies. We remember civil defense drills in school, the tense days of the Cuban Missile Crisis, nuclear bomb shelters, and the fear of a nuclear war from which no one could hide. We still have memories that stir horror and a sense of helplessness.
Before we too go gently into that good night, perhaps Cold War boomers should make sure nuclear weapons go with us to the grave. For those of us in our 60s and 70s, still active and with time on our hands, the abolition of nuclear weapons is a worthy goal. We claim to have ended the Vietnam War with our protests and our marches. Perhaps we have one last act of social justice in us. Perhaps we could bring about the end of nuclear weapons and remove the prospect of nuclear war for our children and grandchildren.
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