Rupert Cornwell Independent/UK 5 May 2013
Since security is on everyone's mind here after the Boston marathon bombs, consider this question: what hope is there of keeping America safe, if an 82-year-old Catholic nun and a couple of mild-mannered peace activists can break into the country's most important nuclear weapons facility, armed with nothing more than a bolt cutter? Sister Megan Rice, house painter Greg Boertje-Obed, and Michael Walli face charges of damaging government property at the Y-12 enriched-uranium complex at Oak Ridge, a few miles from Knoxville, and – considerably more serious – of "intent to injure, interfere with and obstruct national defence", in other words, sabotage.
The whole thing adds up to a massive potential fine and a possible 20 years or more in jail. But that is not the view of Sister Megan and her colleagues. In their eyes, they were on a divine mission to rid the world of such weapons, and therefore not the real defendants in the case. On trial instead should be Oak Ridge, and everything it stands for.
Think of the Manhattan Project, and the bombs that obliterated Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and you think of the Los Alamos research laboratories. You think of Robert Oppenheimer and the physicists who worked there in the remote mountains of New Mexico. But the material they needed was being produced in a green valley of north-eastern Tennessee. The story of Oak Ridge has been told in a new book by Denise Kiernan: The Girls of Atomic City. Kiernan focuses on the perspective of the tens of thousands of female workers brought in 70 years ago to work at this new and top-secret project, but its nickname is as true now as then. From the time it sprouted like a colossal mushroom of brick and steel from the Tennessee soil, Oak Ridge has been a synonym for matters atomic.
The first eviction notices to families and farmers arrived from the US War Department in late 1942, giving them three weeks to move. Within a couple of years, their land had become a town of 75,000 people, operating round the clock and using more electricity than New York City. However, it was marked on no map. Ringed by 95 miles of fence and patrolled by 1,000 guards, Oak Ridge was a closed city. Officially it did not exist. Women formed a large part of the workforce. If they discussed their work with a colleague, they risked instant dismissal. Few had the slightest notion of what was going on. Even those with suspicions spoke merely of "the gadget". But on 6 August 1945, when the sun rose twice over Hiroshima, the secret was no more. "Atomic superbomb, made at Oak Ridge, strikes Japan", blared the headline of that evening's edition of The Knoxville News-Sentinel. By 1949, Oak Ridge was to be found in atlases, a normally incorporated city. But the local business has not changed.
Today's nuclear complex, run by the Department of Energy, covers more than 50 square miles. And Y-12 is still there. It serves as the US government's main storehouse of highly enriched uranium – enough, it is said, to build 10,000 nuclear warheads. You have to wonder whether the Girls of Atomic City would have had regrets, had they known what precisely they were working on.
By the time she, Walli and Boertje-Obed penetrated the Y-12 complex in the early hours of 28 July 2012, she had already been arrested 50 times and spent six months in federal prison as a result of such protests. "If I was called upon to die for this truth I would certainly be willing to die," she told a recent interviewer, "for such a message to the world that we must stop this killing." The penetration itself proved ridiculously easy. With their bolt cutter the trio chopped through four chain-metal fences, the last three of them warning of a death-zone. But though alarms eventually went off, nothing happened for 20 minutes until a lone guard appeared, later joined by others. In the meantime, they splashed blood on the walls of Y-12, spray-painted slogans, and recited prayers for peace.
In Washington there was consternation, and vast embarrassment: a frail nun and two men in late middle age are one thing; three fanatical terrorists quite another. America has been transfixed by a couple of Chechen kids who used ordinary pressure cookers to cause mayhem in Boston: what if the Tsarnaev brothers had done some serious "dirty bomb" homework on the internet, and gone after Y-12?
"The nuclear bomb," said Sister Megan when she was released from custody five days after the break-in, "is the worst weapon in the history of mankind. It should not exist." But it does. And nowhere more so than at Oak Ridge.