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Peace Activists Close Nuclear Facility, Cause Historic Security Breach


In the early morning on Saturday, July 28, three gray-haired trespassers made their way into a nuclear weapons facility in Tennessee. They were armed with human blood, hammers, candles, flowers, crime-scene tape and a Bible. In the process of their break-in and after, they managed to close down operations at the facility for days on end and raise searching questions about how secure — and how justified — the United States’ vast nuclear stockpiles really are.

According to Transform Now Plowshares’ own account:

Michael R. Walli (63), Megan Rice, SHCJ (82), Greg Boertje-Obed, (57), succeeded in a disarmament action at the Oak Ridge Y-12 Nuclear facility before dawn today.

Calling themselves Transform Now Plowshares they hammered on the cornerstone of the newly built Highly-Enriched Uranium Manufacturing Facility (HEUMF), splashed human blood and left four spray painted tags on the recent construction which read: Woe to the empire of blood; The fruit of justice is peace; Work for peace not for war; and Plowshares please Isaiah.

Under the cover of darkness they intermittently passed beyond four fences in a walk for over two hours through the fatal force zone. “We feel it was a miracle; we were led directly to where we wanted to go” said Greg.

After navigating through the complex they came to a long, white, windowless building marked HEUMF. “It was built like a fortress”, Greg said describing the four guard towers.

Unimpeded by security, they attached two banners to pillars of the building. “Transform Now Plowshares” read the first with a green and black icon showing part bomb part flower. A second stated “Swords into Plowshares Spears into Pruning Hooks–Isaiah”. In addition, between the pillars they strung red crime tape.

The action was more successful than anyone could have imagined. The local paper reported on Wednesday (as part of a blog with detailed and ongoing coverage):

In an apparently unprecedented action, the government’s contractor today ordered a “security stand-down” at the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant. All nuclear operations are being put on hold and all nuclear materials will go into vaults while plant workers focus solely on security.

The order by B&W Y-12, and supported by the National Nuclear Security Administration, comes because of the security lapses that allowed peace protesters to penetrate the plant’s highest security area on Saturday morning. “The National Nuclear Security Administration fully supports this step which is necessary to ensure continued confidence in safe and secure operations at Y-12,” the federal agency said in a press statement.

The statement said the stand down is effective today and is expected to end sometime next week.

The activists made their anti-nuclear convictions evident in a declaration, which opens with a passage from the Book of Isaiah:

We come to the Y-12 facility because our very humanity rejects the designs of nuclearism, empire and war. Our faith in love and nonviolence encourages us to believe that our activity here is necessary; that we come to invite transformation, undo the past and present work of Y-12; disarm and end any further efforts to increase the Y-12 capacity for an economy and social structure based upon war-making and empire-building.

A loving and compassionate Creator invites us to take the urgent and decisive steps to transform the U.S. empire, and this facility, into life-giving alternatives which resolve real problems of poverty and environmental degradation for all.

In the report on the incident that appeared in Reuters yesterday, the emphasis was much more on the gravity of the security breach that the action represented than on its actual intent. The writer seems to struggle with the idea that those who perpetrated the breach, including an 82-year-old nun, were neither terrorists nor citizens acting out of a sense of concern for their nation’s security apparatus:

Ralph Hutchinson, coordinator for the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance, said the group’s intention was not to demonstrate the lack of security at the plant, but to take a stance against the making of nuclear weapons.

“It wasn’t so they could show how easy it was to bust into this bomb plant, it was because the production of nuclear weapons violates everything that is moral and good,” Hutchinson said. “It is a war crime.”

Making clear the seriousness of the breach, the article continues:

Peter Stockton, a former congressional investigator and security consultant to the Energy Department, expressed skepticism at government assertions the nuclear material was not at risk.

“It is unbelievable this could happen,” Stockton said. “The significance is outrageous. If they were terrorists, they could have blown open the door and got inside.”

Stockton said the security breach was the “worst we’ve ever seen.”

In the tradition of past Plowshares actions, the combination between tactical sophistication and principled motivation helps draw attention to the action in ways that just tactics or conviction couldn’t do alone. By engineering such a significant break-in, the activists were able to take advantage of public anxieties about security to spread their message to a much broader audience than, for instance, the annual, ritualized trespasses at the SOA Watch protests generally do. In addition to calling attention to the nuclear weapons themselves, the activists also shed light on the dangers of an increasingly privatized security industry that includes WSI Oak Ridge, the contractor responsible for protecting the facility.

The impact of actions such as these, however, is often lessened by the fact of being isolated, which limits their capacity to build real momentum and power against the entrenched military industry.

At least in this case, there has been a national day of action in the works for Hiroshima Day on August 6, including actions around the country and a “mass civil disobedience” at the Los Alamos laboratory in New Mexico. It is being promoted as “Occupy Nukes,” and thus will be a test of whether the networks formed through the Occupy movement last fall can be rallied to reenergize organizing against militarism. A robust movement can begin with a single, courageous action like the one at Oak Ridge, but to be successful it will have to go a whole lot further. 

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