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Posted on Sep 30, 2016
By Gabriel Thompson
“Almighty: Courage, Resistance, and Existential Peril in the Nuclear Age”
On a September afternoon in 2010, a group of 200 activists descended upon the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where more than 400 tons of highly enriched uranium was stored. As lines of police observed their every move, 14 protesters walked onto plant property, gathered in a circle and began to pray. In a development that surprised no one, they were promptly arrested for trespassing.
The protest marked the 30th anniversary of the “Plowshares Movement,” which had been launched when radical pacifists, including Catholic priests Daniel and Philip Berrigan, secretly entered a nuclear missile facility in Pennsylvania, hammered on a warhead cone and poured their blood on classified documents. But the post-9/11 world was a different place, and protecting nuclear facilities had become an urgent imperative. No longer could anyone — activist or terrorist — just stroll inside without being immediately detained.
“Y-12 is a very secure facility,” the building manager said during the trial of the 2010 trespassers. “It is, and will always be, one of the most secure facilities in this country and in the world.”
One of the people arrested in 2010 was Michael Walli, a Vietnam War veteran who spent more than a year in prison for the trespass. But on July 28, 2012, he was back in Oak Ridge, this time wearing a blue United Nations hard hat, communicating his status as an international weapons inspector of sorts. Accompanying Walli was Megan Rice, an 82-year-old nun with a heart condition, and Greg Boertje-Obed, a house painter from the Midwest. With Google Maps as their guide, the trio had hatched the unlikeliest of plans: break into the nuclear plant and hike a mile, over rough and hilly terrain, to Y-12’s Highly Enriched Uranium Materials Facility.
And yet there they were, at 4:29 a.m., already through the third and final fence. To penetrate one of the most secure facilities in the world had required a $25 bolt cutter from True Value. It wasn’t until they had hammered off chunks of the building, spray-painted numerous slogans and strung red tape — DANGER: NUCLEAR CRIME ZONE — that a security guard finally approached in a Chevy Tahoe, wondering what had triggered the alarm. Usually it was wildlife or the wind.
“Will you listen to our message?” the nun asked the disbelieving guard. Sensing the enormity of the security breach, he immediately radioed for backup. As the protesters were cuffed, they sang “This Little Light of Mine.”
The trio would later describe their action as a miracle, evidence that God had guided them along the way. The government considered it a catastrophe. In the hands of Dan Zak, author of “Almighty: Courage, Resistance, and Existential Peril in the Nuclear Age,” the episode also provides an opportunity to explore the dangers of nuclear weapons from an intimate perch. He weaves the drama of the break-in with a brisk history of the development of nuclear power and the resulting horrors. His sentences are spare, to the point and sometimes hard to forget. After cataloging the carnage that was visited upon Hiroshima, he observes that the city “had been erased by an amount of uranium that weighed no more than a human fetus at 28 weeks.”
The book has four characters: the three anti-nuclear activists, and the curious city of Oak Ridge. Located 30 minutes west of Knoxville, it had been erected virtually overnight in 1943, as the government raced to develop an atomic bomb. Tens of thousands of workers were brought in and given badges, which they needed to enter and exit the fenced off city. They put in 70-hour weeks, often only vaguely aware that their work was tied to national defense. (One group of Tennessee high school students was told they were making ice cream.)
In the spring of 1944, the Y-12 plant sent the first sample of enriched uranium to the Los Alamos laboratory in New Mexico. By Aug. 9, 1945, the uranium produced at Oak Ridge had made its way into a bomb dropped from the sky over Hiroshima. What came next is well known, but remains hard to comprehend:
The atomic bomb had to be used, as I learned in high school, because it prevented the need for a ground invasion that would have cost up to a million American lives. But as Zak reminds the reader, that’s not at all certain. Even the U.S. War Department concluded that without the use of the atomic bomb, Japan would have likely surrendered before the date set for an invasion.
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