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Should the U.S. government be building more nuclear weapons? Residents of Kansas City, Missouri don’t appear to think so, for they are engaged in a bitter fight against the construction of a new nuclear weapons plant in their community.
The massive plant, 1.5 million square feet in size, is designed to replace an earlier version, also located in the city and run by the same contractor: Honeywell. The cost of building the new plant—which, like its predecessor, will provide 85 percent of the components of America’s nuclear weapons—is estimated to run $673 million.
From the standpoint of the developer, Centerpoint Zimmer (CPZ), that’s a very sweet deal. In payment for the plant site, a soybean field it owned, CPZ received $5 million. The federal government will lease the property and plant from a city entity for twenty years, after which, for $10, CPZ will purchase it, thus establishing the world’s first privately-owned nuclear weapons plant. In addition, as the journal Mother Jones has revealed, “the Kansas City Council, enticed by direct payments and a promise of ‘quality jobs,’ . . . agreed to exempt CPZ from property taxes on the plant and surrounding land for twenty-five years.” The Council also agreed to issue $815 million in bond subsidies from urban blight funds to build the plant and its infrastructure. In this lucrative context, how could a profit-driven corporation resist?
Kansas City residents, however, had greater misgivings. They wondered why the U.S. government, already possessing 8,500 nuclear weapons, needed more of them. They wondered what had happened to the U.S. government’s commitment to engage in treaties for nuclear disarmament. They wondered how the new weapons plant fit in with the Obama administration’s pledge to build a world free of nuclear weapons. And they wondered why they should be subsidizing the U.S. military-industrial complex with their tax dollars.
Taking the lead, the city’s peace and disarmament community began protests and demonstrations against the proposed nuclear weapons plant several years ago. Gradually, Kansas City PeaceWorks (a branch of Peace Action) pulled together the local chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility, religious groups, and others into a coalition of a dozen organizations, Kansas City Peace Planters. The coalition’s major project was a petition campaign to place a proposition on the November 8, 2011 election ballot that would reject building a plant for weapons and utilize the facility instead for “green energy” technologies.
The significance of the Kansas City nuclear weapons buildup was also highlighted by outside forces. In June 2011, against the backdrop of the Obama administration’s plan to spend $185 billion for modernization of the U.S. nuclear weapons complex over the next ten years, the U.S. Council of Mayors voted unanimously for a resolution instructing the president to join leaders of the other nuclear weapons states in implementing U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s five-point plan for the elimination of all nuclear weapons by the year 2020. It also called on Congress to terminate funding for modernization of the U.S. nuclear weapons complex and nuclear weapons systems. Addressing the gathering, the U.N. leader declared that “the road to peace and progress runs through the world’s cities and towns,” a statement that drew a standing ovation.
Even more pointedly, Archbishop Francis Chullikatt, the Vatican’s ambassador to the United Nations, appeared in Kansas City in July 2011. According to the National Catholic Reporter, Chullikat “came to this Midwestern diocese because it is the site of a major new nuclear weapons manufacturing facility, the first to be built in the country in thirty-three years.” In his address, the prelate remarked: “Viewed from a legal, political, security and most of all—moral—perspective, there is no justification today for the continued maintenance of nuclear weapons.” This was the moment, he declared, to address “the legal, political and technical requisites for a nuclear-weapons-free world.” Highlighting Chullikatt’s speech, the National Catholic Reporter declared, cuttingly: “The U.S. trudges unheedingly down the nuclear path. Now more than ever we need to attend to the messages of the often marginalized peacemakers in our midst.”
Actually, peace activists in Kansas City looked less and less marginalized. Nearly 5,000 Kansas City residents signed the petition to place the proposition rejecting the nuclear weapons plant on the ballot, giving it considerably more signatures than necessary to appear before the voters.
Naturally, this popular uprising came as a blow to the Kansas City Council, which put forward a measure that would block the disarmament initiative from appearing on the ballot.
At an August 17 hearing on the Council measure, local residents were irate. “You cannot divorce yourselves from the hideously immoral purpose of these weapons,” one declared, comparing the city’s subsidy for the weapons plant to financing Nazi gas chambers “for the sake of ‘jobs.’” Referring to the Council’s charter, which provided for the appearance of propositions on the ballot when they secured the requisite number of signatures, the chair of PeaceWorks asked: “Are we a government of laws or of . . . corporations and special interests?”
Since then, the situation has evolved rapidly. On August 25, the City Council voted 12 to 1 to bar the proposition from the ballot. The next day, the petitioners went to court to block Council interference. Honeywell, CPZ, and their friends dispatched a large legal team to Kansas City to fight against the citizens’ initiative, securing a court decision that might delay redress for years. In response, Peace Planters seems likely to speed up the process by crafting a new petition—one that would cut off city funding for the plant.
Whatever the outcome, the very fact that such a struggle has emerged indicates that many Americans are appalled by plans to throw their local and national resources into building more nuclear weapons.
Lawrence S. Wittner is emeritus professor of History at the State University of New York/Albany. His latest book is Confronting the Bomb: A Short History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement (Stanford University Press).