Oak Ridge Peace Activists Work To Stop New Nukes at Y-12

Local peace activism is flourishing, but is it strong enough to prevent a $3.5 billion construction project at Y-12?

Rainbow flags blew in the wind, socks-and-sandals, professorial types took registration sheets, and a young girl in a granny skirt and bare feet was barely able to keep still while she helped fold bright T-shirts with quotes from Gandhi. At first glance, the Nov. 7 fourth annual Walk for Nonviolence, primarily sponsored by the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance, looked no different than any other such event from the past 20 years.

But there was a difference: lots more walkers—25 co-sponsoring organizations, 16 groups in attendance—compared with just a couple dozen people altogether in years past. "This was the largest turnout ever," says OREPA director and event organizer Ralph Hutchison. In addition to aging hippies, many teens and adults showed up, bearing iPods, Italian ices, and free-trade coffees, and creating a boisterous din on the sidewalk in front of the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church. Along with representatives of the more traditional groups like Methodists United for Peace With Justice, the swell included five teens from Tribe One, an inner city Christian ministry that encourages at-risk youth to walk away from gangs, members of two high school gay-straight alliances that came into existence only a couple of years ago, and a newly reorganized TVUUC young adult group. Their definition of "peace" was broader than the typical "No Nukes" and "Stop Wars."

"For me, inequality equals violence," says TVUUC's Caitlin Cotter, an Austin-East High School alumna and recent graduate of Bryn Mawr College with degrees in anthropology, peace and conflict studies, and environmental studies.

Hutchison, who's been involved the entire 21 years OREPA has been peacefully protesting at the Y-12 Nuclear Weapons Plant in Oak Ridge, concurs with this broad definition of "peace," and adds that the larger goal of seeking health, rights, peace, justice, and security through nonviolent actions has not changed, though the make-up of peace groups has.

At the same time, he considers it imperative for local peace activists to address one long-standing and very traditional issue: nuclear disarmament. He's urging them to help parlay gains made nationally by the election of Barack Obama into a forceful opposition to a threat emerging in their own backyard: what he calls a "new bomb plant" that's the top recommendation to come from the Department of Energy/National Nuclear Security Administration's draft Y-12 Site-Wide Environmental Impact Statement (SWEIS), released in October.

The SWEIS document presents five different scenarios for Y-12, all of which "include continued bomb production" notes Hutchison in a Nov. 17 press release.

SWEIS also offers up the DOE/NNSA's preferred alternative, which, according to Y-12 Site Office Public Affairs Manager Steven Wyatt, a spokesman for the NNSA, is building a 350,000 square foot "capability-sized Uranium Processing Facility (UPF)," a proposal also known as Alternative 4.

Alternative 4's UPF would be smaller than other possibilities, and would use about 60 percent less electricity and water than the present operation, according to SWEIS. "... A smaller UPF would maintain all capabilities for fabricating secondaries and cases," it says, "and capabilities for planned dismantlement, surveillance and uranium work...."

According to Wyatt, the UPF proposed would just update the outdated; he describes it as "... a new facility intended to replace an aging capability to perform a full spectrum of enriched uranium related activities, including nuclear weapons dismantlement, supporting nuclear nonproliferation missions, providing low-enrichment fuel for research reactors around the globe, providing the feedstock that powers the nation's nuclear navy and our mission to maintain the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile. The current facilities, built during the early days of the Cold War, are aging and expensive to maintain, but are essential to current mission requirements."

Hutchison sees it differently, objecting strenuously to the idea of a new UPF of any size, and on the OREPA website is urging 500 activists to attend and 300 to speak at the public hearings for comment on the draft Nov. 17 and 18 at the New Hope Center in Oak Ridge, or to make written comments on SWEIS before the DOE/NNSA Jan. 6, 2010 deadline. In the OREPA newsletter, he calls this, "The most important hearing in the history of Oak Ridge. Unless we stop them, the National Nuclear Security Administration will build a new, 3.5 billion dollar bomb plant at Y-12, an act likely to provoke unprecedented global nuclear proliferation."

Hutchison says he has "no idea" how many will actually support the effort, but that peace initiatives are in a highly energized state since Obama's election. "Leading up to the election in 2008, a lot of people's energy went into electoral politics, and the race we had brought new energy and vision to social change work," Hutchison says. "Obama's work on nuclear stockpile reduction, singled out for recognition by the Nobel committee, is a breath of sanity and fresh air; he is saying things we have said for 20 years. I think most people recognize this is a moment in history when we have to draw energy from the president's leadership and actually work harder—Obama himself will not be able to pull Congress to the right places... This issue, though, nuclear proliferation and its twin, nuclear disarmament, is so important we have to force Congress to change—to make decisions that are good for the country and not just for corporate pocketbooks."

OREPA has gone so far as to create its own idea of what Y-12 should do next, dubbed "Alternative 6." It recommends consolidating and downsizing current production facilities instead of building anything new, and then upgrading the existing facility as necessary to "meet environmental, safety and health standards... safeguard and transparency protocols should be incorporated into the upgrades as they are designed. Throughput capacity of 10 warheads a year or less will be adequate to assure the safety and security of the current stockpile as it awaits retirement."

Can such a suggestion be taken seriously? Wyatt's safe response: "We are not familiar with OREPA's comment as it has not been submitted, but it will be fully considered along with any other comments received from the public."

Hutchison is confident of at least a fair hearing. "I believe our positive proposal of Alternative 6 is compelling and will be considered not only because it is ‘required,' but because it is the most sensible proposal and holds the most promise for Oak Ridge and the country," he says. "Since this process started in 2005, they [the DOE/NNSA] have already backed away from their original proposal of a massive UPF—now their preferred alternative is a scaled down version, and they include even a smaller version as a ‘reasonable alternative.' This reflects comments we made in 2005, but also reflects the reality of a world in which nuclear weapons are seen as more dangerous than they are helpful."