“I know nothing about the anti-nuclear movement,” said a student interviewed by Dan Zak in his research for his new book, “Almighty.” “I was born in ’92, and it’s kind of an afterthought for my generation.”
If you’re under 50, you may feel the same way. Outrage and terror about the nuclear threat peaked in 1982, when the largest political demonstration in U.S. history drew close to a million people to New York City. Then the Cold War ended, and with it, the public’s sense of urgency. These days, a “No Nukes” bumper sticker is something like a Pet Rock.
In fact, the threat hasn’t diminished, nor has the resistance of the most committed opponents. With this thorough examination of the 70-year history of the U.S. nuclear weapons program, longtime Washington Post reporter Dan Zak launches a mission to regain our attention.
At the center of his investigation, he places the story of three activists — a Vietnam vet, age 63; a house painter, 57, and a Roman Catholic nun, 82 — who, one night in July 2012, using nothing more sophisticated than a bolt cutter, walked right into a Tennessee nuclear weapons facility that was supposedly the “Fort Knox of Uranium.” They got all the way to the plant itself, called Y-12, where they streaked the walls with blood and hung signs.
Finally, a lone guard rolled up in his Chevy Tahoe and took in the scene. “How did you get in here?” he asked incredulously.
The defense establishment was rocked by the break-in, which, “while far from terrorism, summoned disturbing what-ifs.” The government spent $53,000 to repair the damage. The publicity was terrible. Careers ended in disgrace.
Zak traces the path of each of the participants from their formative years through their trial, sentencing and beyond. Sister Megan Rice, it turns out, grew up across the hall from scientist Selig Hecht, who foresaw and wrote about the abuse of atomic power in the ’40s. From this intersection unfurls the back story of the Y-12 incident and, at the same time, a history that includes Hiroshima and Nagasaki; nuclear tests in the Marshall Islands; the history and sociology of Oak Ridge, Tenn., the company town for the Y-12 plant; detailed coverage of recent nuclear conferences, and politics (this last is the only part that gets a little dull).
“You know, over there, they’re not even human beings like we are.” That’s President Ronald Reagan on the Russians in 1984. The U.S. still has 4,717 warheads. Y-12 is still going strong. Dan Zak’s wake-up call is right on time.
Marion Winik is the author of “First Comes Love” and many other books. She teaches at the University of Baltimore. More information at marionwinik.com.
By: Dan Zak.
Publisher: Blue Rider Press, 402 pages, $27.