In 2013, a Vietnam veteran named Michael Walli and two other nonviolent activists went on trial for breaking into the Y-12 National Security Complex, a nuclear weapons site in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, that has been nicknamed “the Fort Knox of Uranium.” The incident had made national headlines the previous year, and Walli did not deny that he’d taken part. Once inside, the protesters spray-painted idealistic graffiti (“The Fruit of Justice is Peace”) and spattered the premises with human blood. When a prosecutor asked Walli to explain himself, he said he and his friends—Greg Boertje-Obed, a housepainter, and Sister Megan Rice, a Catholic nun who was 82 at the time—were simply “frail vessels” fulfilling a divine obligation: “God wanted the work done, and we were the three manual laborers who accomplished the mission.”
That mission is the focus of Dan Zak’s Almighty: Courage, Resistance, and Existential Peril in the Nuclear Age, a perceptive and important history of America’s nuclear weapons program, as told through the prism of a few people who’ve devoted their lives to challenging its existence. When the activists were arrested, their “average age was nearly 70,” Zak writes. The ease with which Boertje, Rice, and Walli breached Y-12’s outer barriers raised all sorts of questions about the security of the nation’s weapons facilities (not to mention those of the eight other countries that possess nuclear arms).
Speaking from D.C., Zak, a Washington Post reporter, talked about the safety concerns inherent in America’s nuclear program, the effectiveness of zealous activism and the very different positions that Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have taken on nukes.
It’s July 28, 2012, when these three activists break into Y-12. They were affiliated with the Plowshares anti-nuclear weapons movement. What were they carrying with them?
They were carrying an assortment of items that were both symbolic and practical. They had bolt cutters to get through fences, flashlights—practical. They also had Bibles with them, baby bottles with human blood in them, and three hammers, which they used to chip away at the base of this building they were trying to get to.
Why hammers and blood?
With Plowshares actions, which are a tradition of very intrepid civil resistance going back to 1980, carrying blood and some kind of hammering implement is pretty standard in terms of props. It’s rooted in the Book of Isaiah. Since (peace activists Daniel and Philip) Berrigan and others made the first Plowshares action, the intent was always to do something really bold—to actually break into a weapons site, and then once there, to symbolically begin the disarmament process that the prophet Isaiah is decreeing: They shall beat their swords into plowshares, their spears into pruning hooks and they shall study war no more. It was a marrying of symbolic action to criminal actions that would make people pay attention, at least for a little bit.
In the book, you talk about how Sister Rice believes that this is just part of a decades-long journey that began in her youth.
She says she feels guilty for waiting till she was 82 to do this. She was born in 1930 in Manhattan, grew up during the Depression, came of age as World War II was getting started. She lived those formative years in Morningside Heights, near Columbia University. Her neighbor across the hall was a biophysicist at Columbia who was privy to the Manhattan Project, part of which was conducted at Columbia. There were murmurings in that neighborhood—that there was secret work going on, secret work on the atom. She draws a direct line from that unease, and that confusion over the secrecy, to this action that she would take decades later.
In the interim, she went to Africa and taught, joined a religious order, so you can’t really say she was resting on her laurels in terms of serving humanity. But instead of retiring and coming back home to the U.S. and taking it easy, she said: Well, I’m done teaching in Africa, now I can do this type of anti-nuclear work that has been on my mind since childhood.
And her uncle’s experiences as a Marine also shaped her.
Her uncle Walter was deployed to Nagasaki after the second atomic bomb was dropped by the U.S. He was changed by that experience. He saw firsthand the devastation wrought by an atomic bomb, and he came back with what Sister Megan described to me as “the terrible weight of knowing.” He seemed to be haunted by it.
The Y-12 site—it was selected for this action because it was iconic in the history of World War II and the Cold War?
It was one of those places that was built from scratch really quickly during the Manhattan Project as part of the effort to develop an atomic weapon before Hitler. Scientists at the time knew that in order to make an atomic bomb, you needed to use uranium. The U.S. needed a giant factory, essentially, to enrich uranium so that it could be used in a nuclear weapon. It was such an industrial effort then that the U.S. had to build an entire city in East Tennessee, and that ended up being Oak Ridge. One of the plants in Oak Ridge was Y-12. This giant machinery enriched uranium that was used in the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima. Y-12 is still in operation today—it’s no longer enriching uranium, but processing it, storing it, and doing lots of machine and engineering work for nuclear weapons.
How would you characterize security at Y-12 before this incident? You write about how it could be found on Google Maps, which was surprising.
I would describe it as somewhat spotty, or at least not prepared for activists who were trying to get in that way. There have been both safety and security incidents essentially since the creation of Y-12. There was a strengthening of security after 9/11, but it was in preparation for some kind of massive terrorist attack, which left some holes in terms of dealing with other kinds of threats.
People tend to blame this wobbliness on the U.S. just kind of taking its eye off the ball in terms of nuclear weapons after the Cold War. Oversight and investigative people often say that “a culture developed”—a culture of complacency, a culture of tolerating 1,000-plus false alarms every day that are due to glitches. That can condition someone to think that the next alarm is likely a false alarm, which is exactly what happened in this incident.
Has this incident changed the culture at these nuclear facilities? How secure are these places?
Things have changed since the break-in—there’s more concertina wire, there was some retraining for their security force. Now, maintenance issues have to be fixed in a certain number of hours instead of lagging because of paperwork and bureaucracy. This cut down on false alarms. You could argue that the incident did tighten up security there.
But then I go back to your second question—well, you can tighten it up as much as you want, but if human beings are involved, something is fallible. It’s never going to be 100 percent.
The Y-12 break-in led to congressional hearings, but they didn’t seem to accomplish much. You write that members of Congress “arrived late—if they arrived at all—and left early, after delivering a statement of general outrage.” Is Washington doing its job when it comes to oversight of these sites?
I was a little chagrined by my experience going to nuclear weapons-related hearings, just because they do seem like theatrics and performance art rather than a dutiful nonpartisan inquiry into what may be going on. There’s just not a depth of knowledge in much of Congress. There used to be, especially during the Cold War. But today congressmen are so much more wrapped up in parochial concerns and conventional weaponry and terrorism. There’s a lot of discussion about funding certain sites and programs, but no discussion about strategy and what we’re doing with them and why.
I’m guessing the quality of the oversight linked to the fact that these nuclear sites are massive job creators.
It’s hard to un-create an economy around something. The U.S. has been aware of this ever since Eisenhower articulated it as the military industrial complex. You have senators and congressmen who have nuclear weapons labs in their districts, or ICBM silos and airbases in their districts, or shipyards in their districts, or plants like Y-12. And they are job creators and job maintainers.
President Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize in part because he talked about trying to reduce the number of nuclear weapons. What’s his legacy going to be on this issue?
His presidency is a very challenging one to assess in terms of this. He has had nuclear weapons on his mind since he was a student. His first major speech abroad was about “seek(ing) the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.” And then you have his visit to Hiroshima this past May, which was huge. In between, he has essentially signed off on a trillion-dollar overhaul and modernization of this arsenal.
I think he has done more than recent presidents to keep this issue at the forefront. He’s had four Nuclear Security Summits, to get world leaders to talk about securing nuclear material around the planet. His administration accomplished the deal with Iran, which is controversial but lengthens the amount of time it would take Iran to make a nuclear weapon. But at the same time, activists look at him and say: There’s an inherent paradox here, because you’ve just recommitted to a nuclear arsenal for generations.
Where are Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump on this issue?
Hillary Clinton has said that Donald Trump is “not someone who should ever have the nuclear codes.” She makes it an issue of temperament and recklessness. But she said during her previous presidential campaign that the nuclear deterrent keeps the peace. And famously, in a back-and-forth with Obama in 2007, she didn’t rule out using nuclear weapons on terrorists in Pakistan and Afghanistan. So I think that should be remembered.
And Trump has kind of been contradicting himself a little bit. He said that “I will be the last to use nuclear weapons.” He’s also said, in the context of nuclear use, “we need unpredictability.” Most alarmingly, he suggested that proliferation is going to happen anyway, whether or not we do anything about it, so that maybe it would be good if Japan and South Korea and Saudi Arabia had their own nuclear weapons. Which is anathema to decades of nuclear nonproliferation strategy.
There are nine nuclear-armed nations. In light of what happened at Y-12, what do we know about security at such sites in other countries?
A lot of people make the argument that if U.S. security of nuclear weapons—which is probably the best in the world—is occasionally compromised in this manner, who knows what is vulnerable in places like India and Pakistan. India and Pakistan are what make most nuclear weapons experts nervous, just because of inherent tensions and security that may not be up to snuff.
One thing you can say for the U.S. is that we’re pretty transparent—it’s a highly classified realm, but we publish our stockpile numbers, we make our budgets publicly available. China is not as transparent, Russia is not as transparent. North Korea is the most opaque. There’s intense concern. It would be very, very, very difficult, if not impossible, for a terrorist organization to make their own fissile material. But it is perfectly conceivable that that material could be stolen, and if U.S. security occasionally comes across as Swiss cheese-like, who knows what it’s like in China, India, Pakistan, and Russia.
So at the trial in 2013, Boertje-Obed, Sister Rice, and Walli were all convicted. But they’ve since been freed?
They were released in May of last year, after a three-judge appeals court vacated their most serious conviction: intending to endanger the national defense. By that time they had served enough time for the conviction that stood, which was destruction of government property, so they’ve been out for just over a year.
What’s your thinking about this kind of zealous activism after spending so much time reporting and writing about it? Is it sometimes necessary to show us that we tend to grow complacent about these big, important issues?
Listen, that kind of activism is what made me pay attention. I think whether or not they want to admit it, that is part of their strategy: In order to wake people from their complacency or non-concern, they have to do something really outrageous that will get them headlines. It worked. I admit that I would not have written about this if they had stayed on the other side of the line and held some signs.