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Inside the Secret City

 

On February 26, 2008 a public hearing was held at the city that bills itself as “the Secret City”–Oak Ridge, Tennessee. This meeting was but one of eight held around the country at the nation’s nuclear weapons labs. The purpose of the hearings was to discuss what the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) calls “Complex Transformation.” Established by Congress in 2000, the NNSA is an agency within the U.S. Department of Energy that is responsible for maintaining and expanding the military application of nuclear energy. Behind its terminology are four proposals regarding the development of nuclear weapons. In a perfect example of governmental doublespeak, even the proposal labeled the “No Action Alternative” calls for the continued construction of nuclear bombs. The primary difference between this proposal and the other three proposals is simple. The so-called “No Action Alternative” lists the number of new bombs to be built annually as classified. The other proposals, with the names “Distributed Centers of Excellence,” “Consolidated centers of Excellence,” and “Capability Based Alternative” call for anywhere from fifty to one hundred fifty new bombs to be built each year. I haven’t done the math, but that is one hell of a lot of Hiroshimas.

The hearings themselves are being held under the auspices of the various plans and their environmental impact. Of course, the impact this is referring to is not the impact of the weapons should they be used, but the impact that their storage and manufacture would have on the environment and its inhabitants in the areas around the eight sites. Either way, the outcome is wracked with implicit danger and death. When one reads the draft Environmental Statement, they discover that it looks at two possible actions. The first would restructure facilities that use plutonium and highly enriched uranium to produce components for the nuclear weapons stockpile (SNM facilities). The second would restructure research and development (R&D) and testing facilities. The two actions differ in their magnitude and timing. The restructuring of SNM facilities would take 10 years or more and address issues such as where to locate these facilities and whether to construct new facilities or renovate existing ones for these functions. As regards the R&D facilities, NNSA wants to restructure these facilities in the near-term, independent of decisions it may make as to restructuring of SNM facilities. Furthermore, the proposals offer the following choices that would be incorporated into the two overall actions mentioned above. The first, called Distributed Centers of Excellence, which would continue the uranium mission at Y-12 with the new Uranium Processing Facility; the second. titled Consolidated Centers of Excellence, would consolidate uranium and plutonium missions at a single site; the third, labeled Capability Based Alternative, would involve reduced capability and limited new facilities. The fourth would leave things as they are.

All of the proposals would build a new plant in Oak Ridge for the development and construction of new nuclear weapons. The current plant, known as Y-12, employs around 4000 individuals. Consequently, the future of the plant is important to the locals, especially given the otherwise lackluster employment opportunities in the region. This unfortunate dynamic creates a situation where folks defend that very same thing they oppose in other nations like Iran-the development of nuclear weapons. One could go even further and draw a parallel between the nature of communities whose continued existence depends on nuclear weapons and those communities in other warmongering nations of the past whose citizens were employed in the development of weaponry and other instruments designed to destroy whole peoples.

One element of the proposals discussed February 26th is something the NNSA calls the “Life Extension Program.” Now, this program has nothing to do with extending the life of any human. It does however have plenty to do with extending the life of the NNSA bureaucracy and, even more ominously, the “lives” of existing nuclear weapons. According to a November 2004 press release from NNSA, the purpose of the program is to extend the warhead’s life by 30 years and to provide structural

enhancements. In other words, to maintain and expand the weapon’s lethal capabilities. Other elements of the various proposals besides those mentioned include consolidating plutonium and other nuclear weapons materials stockpiles and the designing of new bombs. All of this is proposed in spite of the 1970 US signature on the non-proliferation treaty.

Bombs For Us, But Not For You

In what can only be a restatement of the obvious, this plan to build more nuclear weapons is incredibly hypocritical when considered in relation to the current campaign by Washington to prevent Iran from even considering developing one. Indeed, if the US nuclear weapons industry were held to the standards its government demands of those it considers enemies, than US residents would be wondering if and when an armed attack on its nuclear facilities in Oak Ridge and elsewhere around the nation was going to occur. Instead, with a duplicity few even question, Washington continues to threaten Tehran over its possible interest in nuclear weapons while publicly declaring that it plans to began building eighty to two hundred new bombs a year, even if no other country ever builds another nuclear weapons device of any kind.

The National Director of Intelligence Michael McConnell testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee this week regarding, among other things, Iran’s situation and northern Korea’s adherence to the six-party agreement signed last year that would end its nuclear weapons program. This testimony was part of what is called the “Annual Threat Assessment.” McConnell was joined by the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) in claiming that although the US intelligence services have no evidence that Iran has any nuclear weapons capability and has proven in the intelligence community’s mind that it is susceptible to outside pressures regarding that program, the possibility that “Iran has acquired from abroad-or will acquire in the future-a nuclear weapon or enough fissile material for a weapon.” This caveat is nothing more than keeping open the door for a potential armed attack on Iran should the White House decide to go down that road. The only reason for including this undocumented and pointless statement is to maintain a level of fear that helps justify the largest defense budget in the history of the United States. In his testimony about northern Korea, McConnell repeated that Pyongyang exported missile technology in the past and might do so again. Of course, the US has always done so and will continue to. McConnell did acknowledge that Pyongyang maintains its military force and any weapons programs for deterrence and coercive diplomacy, which does not seem to be the case with the US. If it were, one has to wonder why it sees a need to build more when its nuclear arsenal is several times larger than the rest of the world’s combined. I mention McConnell’s testimony to provide perspective, so please read it with that in mind. It is also important to remember that this is Washington’s version of reality and represents not only Washington’s fears but is also part of an effort to justify spending several hundred billion dollars on destruction.

What Happened At the Hearing

Back to Oak Ridge. The local newspaper The Oak Ridger, over ninety people spoke at the public hearings on February 26, 2008. The newspaper, which has featured editorials in favor of continued bomb production, reported that the majority of those speaking were in favor of the plan called Consolidated Centers of Excellence. This is the plan that is apparently also favored by the NNSA and would upgrade facilities at Los Alamos and build a new facility at either Oak Ridge’s Y-12, the Savannah River Site, Pantex, the Nevada Test Site or Los Alamos. It would also include the continuation of Pantex’s assembly/disassembly operations and Y-12 would continue enriched uranium operations with an upgrade to existing enriched uranium facilities. The rest of the speakers spoke in favor of the No Action plan, which would leave things essentially as they are.

The newspaper also reported that several workers and their families showed up in support of the Consolidated Centers of Excellence plan. They wore t-shirts bearing the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) logo and a short slogan that said “Why build it somewhere else?” The article featured a photo of a young girl (whose parent apparently works at the plant) wearing one of these shirts. The article discussed the presence of members of peace and environmental groups, reporting that these individuals spoke about the plant in terms that included the greater costs of continuing nuclear weapons development and included residents from around the entire region from western North Carolina to Georgia and eastern Tennessee. The nature of the military-industrial complex was obvious in a very real way, both at the hearing and in the reportage. Patriotism was called on by some speakers in favor of expanding the plant and the question of well-paying jobs in a region that has few other similar wage earning opportunities was front and center.

I was able to contact Ralph Hutchison of the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance (OREPA), which is a local group in eastern Tennessee that currently describes its mission as one of raising awareness about ongoing nuclear weapons production. He answered a few questions I had regarding OREPA’s take on the hearings. The transcript of the exchange follows.

Ron: What occurred at the hearing?

Ralph: The Oak Ridge C-Trans SPEIS hearings drew hundreds, but not 400 as the press reported. There was ample space for us to display our stuff-Hiroshima posters and other materials-and Ted Wyka’s staff were quite solicitous. “If you need anything else, more tables or anything, let us know.”

The weather was cold and threatening-the building intercom announced winter storm watches mid afternoon, but most of the bad weather held off until evening. i drove home at 10:30 in driving snow.

It was a good hearing from OREPA’s standpoint. The workers packed the place-a large auditorium-and wore bright green Y12 YES! stickers. IBEW seemed to be the most prominent group. The DOE Site manager said they were trying to cycle workers through to have 100 at any given time, but actually they all came for the first hour and a half and left.

OREPA did a press conference at which we presented a No Production Alternative, said it was reasonable, said it had to be included-we had the biggest local TV station (wbir), AP, and the News Sentinel. I didn’t see the TV coverage. We also had brief statements from the Detroit, MI delegation and the folks from Footprints for Peace in Cincinnati; they criticized DOE for not making an effort to get comments from a broader community, noting that it is a national issue. Arriving just a minute too late for the press conference was Glenn Caroll and the Altanta delegation, and folks from North Carolina came for the evening session. It was really great to have such strong support from distant points. Thanks, Glenn, for making the trip; I hope Ted Wyka is wondering if you are going to haunt him at every hearing!

Highlights included great speeches from students from the Farm School in Summertown, TN (a four hour drive). One nine year old declared the idea of new bomb INSANE! In the evening, more than 30 students from three colleges (Carson Newman, Maryville and Tusculum) came for two hours as part of their Bonner Scholars program. They didn’t get there in time to sign up to speak, but they listened and got some education. Students from Tennessee Tech Students for a Democratic Society came and spoke and were articulate and clever. DOE didn’t offer much to hope for, but the young people did.

The evening also featured speeches by nine year olds Emma McLeod (I have nightmares about my house being bombed; these nightmares come true for lots of innocent children all around the world) and Evora Kreis. And the OREPA players presented a twenty minute skit in which Uncle Sammy Scrooge was confronted by the Ghosts of Bombs Past, Present and Future. It was an excellent drama developed by Kevin and Cindy Collins and Lissa McLeod and involved a dozen players. They signed up for four consecutive slots and were given the time. (As an aside, Barry Lawson was our moderator and we have a good history with him. He’ll be doing a couple of the other hearings as well. When I arrived in the morning I went up to greet him and he said, “I have to come to Oak Ridge once a year to make sure everyone is still on script,” and I said, “I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.” He laughed and said, “I’m looking forward to it.” When the giant cockroach skittered across the stage at the end of the skit, I felt confident that we had met his expectations.

There was poetry and a ululation from Elisabeth Barger, doctors spoke to oppose continuing weapons production along with a philosophy professor, clergy, several nurses, teachers, some Oak Ridgers, writers, Catholic Worker activists, Beth Brockman who said, “I came under orders from the Assistant District Attorney who told me, just before I was sentenced to 22 days in jail, that I should write letters and go to hearings instead of blocking the road,” retired missionaries, World War 2 Conscientious Objectors, community organizers, six strong voices from Detroit, Michigan; Buddhists chanting in vigil outside the New Hope Center

There was a gentleman whose name I’ve lost who came from Atlanta with Glenn and Steven Wing who jolted the workers a little in the midst of their bread and butter parade. He stood and said, “My father built the V2 rocket for Germany. He joined the Nazi party to get the job. When we asked him why, he said he did it for his children. I don’t honor him for that.” It was a good way to get them to think, if they are ever going to, about their motives from a broader perspective.

All in all, I think the speakers broke at 65% opposed to DOE’s plan and in favor of a No Production Alternative, 35% with that East Tennessee Volunteer can-do spirit. I hope others will present the No Production Alternative idea at your hearing; its a good vehicle to note that events, Congressional disapproval, the Kissinger, Shultz, Nunn cabal have pulled the rug out from under this scheme. If it gives the EIS preparation team pause, and we bump this into a New Administration, we stand a decent chance of winning.

There were ninety speakers in the afternoon, and we finished just before 5:00. A dozen or so anti-Bombplex people gave up or left without speaking. There were fifty speakers in the evening and we finished at 10:00 on the dot; the crowd had dwindled to three dozen by then.

My impression from Savannah River was that only federal officials got preferential treatment; in Oak Ridge any elected official was moved to the head of the line, so we heard eight or nine pathetic paeans to weapons of mass destruction. They even let one Chamber of Commerce type booster slip in and I went to the sign up table and called them on it. It didn’t happen again.

That’s the report. Glad to entertain questions.

Ron: How many people (in your estimate) spoke against the proposed plans and what were their objections?

Ralph:I believe about 90 of the 130 speakers were opposed to continuing weapons production at Oak Ridge or anywhere else. Objections were primarily that there is no need for a new weapons complex; it undermines nonproliferation efforts, it violates the NPT, it will cost billions of dollars we need to be spending on true security. The Kissinger/Shultz/Nunn/Perry initiative was cited repeatedly, as was the Us double standard on proliferation. Specific exception was taken to the Stockpile Life Extension Program-the US ongoing program to maintain an enduring stockpile by refurbishing old warheads. This work happens at Y12 in Oak Ridge, so there was a special focus on it.

OREPA’s proposed “No Production Alternative” was cited by dozens of speakers at this hearing and was presented on Thursday (yesterday) at the Pantex hearing as well. We expect this alternative to be entered into the record at each public hearing.

Ron: What was the rationale from the NNSA representative for the proposed changes?

Ralph: A requirement in the 2001 Nuclear Posture Review (now clearly outdated) that requires them to protect national security with the least possible number of nuclear weapons. Current design, testing and production facilities are old and dilapidated and spread out all over the place, so NNSA wants to reduce the footprint, consolidate some operations, save money and increase efficiency. And, in all cases, build more bombs

Ron:What happens next?

Ralph: There are a series of hearings which will continue around the country. Details available at DOE’s complex transformation web site. The timeline calls for a Final EIS to be published in October (this will slip) and a Record of Decision to follow thirty days later. They are desperate to try to ram this through during the Bush Administration since there is no real driver for this other than pork delivery to the bomb communities and their Congressional grocers know they stand little chance of making deliveries once Bush is out of office.

Ron: Does the NNSA choose one of the plans and go ahead or does the public continue to have some input?

Ralph: The public can continue to comment until April 10 (complextransformation@nnsa.doe.gov). After that, DOE tries to finalize the document and make it bulletproof and the only recourse to the public is to challenge the final EIS in court if there are deficiencies and lawyers available.

Ron: What are OREPA’s plans for the near future regarding this effort to begin building more bombs?

Ralph:OREPA will continue to educate and organize to stop continuing weapons production in Oak Ridge. We will be mobilizing people to get comments in during this EIS process and expect to have letters from local academic and clergy leaders. We also have a major peace action planned at the Y12 Nuclear Weapons Plant for mid-April-a nonviolence workshop in Knoxville on April 12 and a peace rally, march and demonstration against nuclear weapons production in Oak Ridge on April 13. When/If a final EIS is issued, OREPA will be part of discussions about legal challenges to the plan if it includes continued weapons production.

Also, on a separate track (hedging their bets) DOE is preparing a Y12 Site-Wide EIS which intends to provide NEPA coverage for a new $3billion Uranium Processing Facility (that’s a new bomb plant) to continue Life Extension on the W76 warhead. This EIS was started two years ago, but according to DOE, the schedule for releasing a draft is indefinite. They have a bit of a cart-and-horse problem, since the Programmatic EIS, which should make some recommendation or decision about where Uranium work will happen (even though we all know it is at Y12), was started AFTER the Y12 EIS was already underway. Our position is that the Programmatic EIS may not site a facility at Y12 until a site-specific EIS in completed. Any decision in the Programmatic EIS must be provisional. Anyway, we will have another education/organizing job to do when the Draft Y12 Site-Wide EIS is published because it will include money for a new bomb plant in Oak Ridge.

RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His first novel, Short Order Frame Up, is published by Mainstay Press. He can be reached at: rjacobs3625@charter.net

 

 

 

 

 

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Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. His latest offering is a pamphlet titled Capitalism: Is the Problem.  He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

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