A fantastic long read about activism and nuclear weapons

Last summer, a nun, a drifter, and a house painter broke into the secure compound surrounding the Oak Ridge National Laboratory — the laboratory that made uranium for the Manhattan Project and continues to be a major part of America's nuclear infrastructure. Their goal: To put America on trial. Dan Zak has written an amazing piece for the Washington Post, blending this story with the history of Oak Ridge and and in-depth look at the future of the US nuclear weapons program. Very much worth your time.


  1. Awesome setup for a joke. So a nun, a drifter, and a house painter walk into a secure nuclear facility and the scientist says…

  2. If anyone is interested in the background history of the science buildup to the atomic bombs and those industrialized sacrifice zones in our country that are  the repository of the war time legacy, this book is required reading:

    The Making of the Atomic Bomb – Richard Rhodes

    It doesn’t cover any environmental concerns about the creation of this nuclear legacy, and thus speaks to us with the simpler world views present for their creation.

  3. I grew up in Oak Ridge, so this story is especially interesting for me.  Maybe the security was better in the 90s, but when I was a teenager, a friend and I were driving around and got lost (which is extremely easy to do in that town; it was designed that way on purpose).  We ended up on one side of the Y-12 complex, somewhere in the middle of the woods.  We had stopped to get our bearings, and just when we realized where we were, a guard came up to the car window, gun drawn, and started interrogating us.  We could see two others behind him, also with drawn weapons.  It took about five minutes for him to be satisfied that we, a terrified couple of kids, had simply gotten turned around, and he let us go on our way.  No one ever put down their weapon.  There were probably more weapons on us that we didn’t see.  One of the scariest moments of my life.  It was in the middle of the day, but still, we hadn’t even entered the complex and we were immediately pounced upon, so I remain amazed that these three activists managed to get all the way inside.  

    1. In the early 90s, memories of large nuclear disarmament protests, and the significant media coverage they received, were still in the minds of government and the defense industry.

      I was born in the 70s and grew up in the late Cold War world. In 6th grade, after completing a study unit on Hiroshima, the Cold War and the atomic bomb, my friends and I would debate whether we’d be lucky enough to be vaporized based on our town’s position almost equidistant from critical military and nuclear research targets in the SF Bay Area, and data regarding effects within defined circles. We calculated that we would, so that was a huge weight off our shoulders.

      With futile abandon, we still ducked and covered at school, which would have been decimated by attacks on Stanford and the linear accelerator, Lawrence Livermore Lab, Moffett Field, the UC Berkeley reactor and Lawrence Berkeley Lab (all military targets). Coincidentally, the LBL developed the calutrons that were used at Y-12 at the Oak Ridge Lab. 

      One thing that struck me in reading the article was the quote from the progressive Christian student  born in 1992: “I know nothing about the anti-nuclear movement, “Hickman tells her. “I was born in ’92, and it’s kind of an afterthought for my generation.”

      The student who was born in ’92 grew up in a world born of Columbine and 9/11. That was their uncontrolled nightmare. I have friends who are in their early 20s who describe how those events affected their lives, and I’m reminded of how my friends and I feared nuclear war and/or disaster.

      Of course, the magnitude of the threat is different. And naturally, the longevity of nuclear materials and the inescapable effect of entropy and budget cuts on old installations, makes the question of how to deal with our technological burden just as relevant to the millennials as to every other generation.

      It’s beyond disheartening that humanity tends to adapt and to forget so quickly. What’s worse is that many millions of dollars go to public relations firms, politicians and lobbyists in order to control the discourse around the management and responsible handling of nuclear materials.

      All that money has proved a good investment. It’s allowed corporations to frame public discourse to the point at which comment threads on any article touching on a nuclear issue immediately devolve into highly polarized and utterly ineffective debate between those who believe that we should find solutions to problems associated with nuclear technology, and those who believe that any questions about anything nuclear represent a blatant attack on nuclear energy and the security of the Homeland.

      These conversations are complicated, and finding and implementing solutions will be difficult. Compromises will necessary. It will be hard work. And it needs to start now.

  4. The wrong people are on trial. The folks in charge of securing the facility should be the ones in jail. They’re the ones who have seriously screwed up.

  5. That’s a really great story. Speaking personally, I’m finding the journalist’s style a little intrusive, but the meat of the tale is great. Thanks for linking. 

  6. The break-in did not occur at Oak Ridge National Laboratory; it occurred at the Y-12 National Security Complex. Oak Ridge National Laboratory is a completely separate facility located several miles away.

  7. One does not need a massive amount of nuclear weapons to do another country or nation-state a lot of concrete damage or destruction. A one kiloton fission rather than a hydrogen or thermonuclear bomb will do the trick in some cases, mounted on some type of delivery system such as a surface to air missile, even a bazooka could do the trick. Both India and Pakistan might have such weapons in their stockpiles as well as North Korea, with Iran soon to join the ranks of nuclearized nation-states. Yields and designs are improving all the time along with physical means to guide the bombs, in addition to minimizing size and weight, making way to more lighter, easily transported bombs with multiple warheads on one delivery system. Notwithstanding, the day Californium-252 is tapped for its neutron source, since it delivers more neutrons per fission than either plutonium-239 or uranium-235, will be the day when bombs will become superior for total annihilation of a large city by any nation-state or individual who possesses such incredible atomic power. Unfortunately Californium can be found naturally on earth. The Global Babbler

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