The reporter Eric Schlosser is perhaps best known for his book Fast Food Nation, but for the past few years he has specialised in researching the nuclear industry, and how we look after our Cold War nuclear legacy, which has left piles of enriched uranium and plutonium in hundreds of locations across the globe. The answer: not well.
Much of this was covered in his 2013 book Command and Control. Now, in a smart piece of publishing, Penguin has published Gods of Metal, an updated novella length (and novella priced) version of his long New Yorker article on the anti-nuclear movement Plowshares, and its break-in at nuclear facility Y-12, at Oak Ridge, Tenneseee. Penguin has also republished in the same format and price John Hersey’s original 1946 account of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.
The Plowshares movement is the worst kind of adversary a government could wish for. It emerged from the Catholic Worker Movement of the 1930s, and in particular the teachings and practice of Dorothy Day. It comprises people who seek to live in the way they believe Jesus intended, living and working with the poor and indigent. They own nothing. Nuclear weapons are an anathema to them, and prison is not a deterrent. As one of the Plowshares activists tells Schlosser,
[Prison]’s the closest as white middle-class North Americans that we can really be with the poor.
They prepare for their actions carefully, a year or more ahead, even giving them names (‘Gods of Metal’ was the name they gave to the Y-12 incursion). They acknowledge their actions, and know that the result will be arrest and most likely incarceration.
At the same time, through their actions, they also reveal the lax security standards of the privatised nuclear contractors. While awaiting trial, the Y-12 defendants attended a hearing where they were thanked by Congressmen . Schlosser is clearly surprised that we leave nuclear security in private hands in a world where many, abroad and at home, might have an interest in exploding a “dirty bomb” in the United States:
If terrorists manage to steal weapons-grade uranium or plutonium from a Department of Energy facility because of a contractor’s mistakes, the firm responsible for the security breach stands to lose its contract. The United States could lose a city.
And perhaps time is running with the Plowshares activists, not against them. Dorothy Day’s original teachings were disowned by the Catholic Church; now she is being considered for canonisation. The Church’s position on nuclear weapons has also moved significantly. According to Schlosser, a statement on nuclear weapons released in late-2014 said,
Now is the time to affirm not only the immorality of nuclear weapons, but the immorality of their possession, thereby clearing the road to abolition.
And perhaps as surprisingly, the ‘sabotage’ charge which the ‘Gods of Metal’ defendants were found guilty of – a classically cynical use of the justice system by the security state – was struck down when the case came to appeal. It’s impossible to read the book without thinking that these widely distributed stocks of nuclear materials – in the United States and elsewhere – represent a large risk, and one that we aren’t taking seriously enough.
There’s a review of Gods of Metal on the blog of Riverside Bookshop, where I bought my copy. The Observer published a piece by Andrew Anthony on the re-publication of Gods of Metal and Hiroshima. On Open Democracy, Michael Edwards has just published an article on the Y-12 activists since their release from jail: “I’m out of prison, but I’m still not free.”
The image at the top of this post is by Andrew Curry, and is published here under a Creative Commons licence.