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How a Nun, a Vet, and a Housepainter Stood Up to the Threat of Nuclear Weapons via The Nation

Dan Zak’s Almighty reminds readers that the United States’ poisonous and very expensive history of nuclear-weapons production is far from over.

Dan Zak’s Almighty: Courage, Resistance and Existential Peril in the Nuclear Age is a must read for everyone in this country who has forgotten about nuclear weapons. And that is most of us, isn’t it?

Engineers, physicists, military planners, arms control wonks, diplomats, and some politicians—they all get paid to remember that the United States has an almost unique capacity for nation destruction. The three people profiled in Almighty are among the handful who haven’t forgotten. But they aren’t professionals of any kind. In fact, Dan Zak refers to them as “the sister,” “the veteran,” and “the house painter.”

They call themselves Transform Now Plowshares, and on July 28, 2012, the nonviolent peace activists penetrated Y-12, a heavily guarded nuclear facility tucked within the hills and valleys of Tennessee. After cutting through fences and hiking miles in the dark, they reached the outer walls of the complex’s highly enriched uranium materials facility.


Transform Now Plowshares was different, garnering widespread publicity through above-the-fold coverage in The Washington Post,The New York Times, and daily local news sources, as well as through congressional hearings on security lapses in Washington. Maybe it was the age and earnestness of the activists, or maybe it was the singularity of their feat—penetrating so deeply into such a secure facility—or maybe it was the political moment. But, whatever it was, Transform Now directed attention and forced the general public to question nuclear weapons like never before.


“Y-12” doesn’t stand for anything. The facility was built to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons and was a key component of the Manhattan Project. In the early 1940s, some people called it the “Mystery Plant” and others dubbed it the “Shangri-la Plant.” It was a massive undertaking. The federal government seized 60,000 acres of land, evicted 3,000 farmers and homesteaders, paved 200 miles of road and erected 44,000 houses. Once the complex was constructed, 75,000 people were brought in to operate it. High-school girls were told they’d be making ice cream and trained to turn knobs and flip switches perched in high stools. Men worked 70 hours a week, exhausted and stressed. But they didn’t talk about it. Ever. At its height, Y-12 was producing “several hundred grams of bomb-grade uranium per day” and eating up 14 percent of the nation’s electricity.

Zak vividly renders how, in this strange and isolated world, people worked hard every day while having no idea what they were doing. Prospective jurors for the Transform Now Ploughshares trial all had some connection to the Y-12 facility and very little knowledge of or curiosity about what their family members did there. As Oak Ridge Mayor Tom Beehan told Zak, “If you were to walk around in here right now and start talking to people about [nuclear bombs], you’d get blank stares.” The Transform Now activists hoped to shatter this pervasive silence, but the cone of secrecy endures to this day.


Around the time of the trial, a progressive Christian student confessed to Sister Megan: “I know nothing about the anti-nuclear movement. I was born in ’92, and it’s kind of an afterthought for my generation.” Fair enough. Millennials have their hands full with catastrophic climate change, crippling debt from name-brand educations that do not guarantee living wages or secure employment, the scourge of gun violence, the threat of terrorism, the muscular militarization of everyday life including policing, just to name a few. But to the Plowshares movement, all of these issues are built on the foundation of the bomb and its unique God-defying, creation-threatening destructive power. This tunnel vision and the ardent faith of the activists makes for a peculiar disconnect with mainstream society, which was on full display at the trial and sentencing of the three activists.

Read more at How a Nun, a Vet, and a Housepainter Stood Up to the Threat of Nuclear Weapons


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