Anti-Nuclear Activists Descend upon Tennessee, Five Arrested


By Nicholas Foster, Contributing Writer, The Atlanta Progressive News


Photographs by Nicholas Foster


(APN) OAK RIDGE, TENNESSEE — Fifty two years ago today, on August 6, 1945, the United States dropped a nuclear bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, killing more than 200,000 people, mostly civilians.

The uranium in that bomb — the first of its kind — was enriched at the Y-12 Nuclear Weapons Complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where on Saturday, August 04, 2007, about 200 people gathered to reflect on the tragedy and protest current nuclear proliferation.

Activists from Atlanta Women’s Action for New Directions (WAND) participated in a caravan to Oak Ridge, where they converged with activists all over the nation.

Five activists were arrested for civil disobedience, chaining themselves to metal barricades that blocked the entrance to Y-12. Those arrested were Mary Lentsch, 70, of Oak Ridge; Elizabeth Brockman, 44, of Durham, North Carolina; and William Hickey, 62, Billie Hickey, 58, and a nun named Mary Ellen Gondeck, 66, each of Detroit, Michigan.

As the activists marched to the Y-12 facility, several drivers honked their horns and waved peace signs in support, while a few shouted in dissent.

“Go home!” one man shouted from a red pickup truck.


Photographs by Nicholas Foster

The group, however, remained peaceful throughout the day, singing and drumming along the march. Some of them speculated on the reasoning for those who disagreed with their protest.

“Most people want to believe what they do for their life’s work is something helpful for their country or their family and friends,” Bert Skellie, 61, of Decatur, Georgia, told Atlanta Progressive News. “They don’t want to think it’s something that’s potentially harmful.”

“They’re not involved in these bomb plants because they want bombs to be used. They believe they are protecting us,” he said.

Many people in the town of about 28,000 are not comfortable with the local construction of weapons of mass destruction, Ralph Hutchinson, coordinator of the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance (OREPA), which organizes the annual event, said.


Photographs by Nicholas Foster


Some openly support OREPA, while others keep quiet about their involvement, fearful that they may lose their jobs, he said.

The ethos of the town is keeping secrets, Hutchinson said, which can be traced back to the 1940s, when the majority of the US populace supported the military involvement in World War II.

“The mythology here is more powerful than the reality,” Hutchinson said. “You can’t say the ‘B’-word in Oak Ridge. People who want to work in this community need security clearances, and it doesn’t take much before that’s called into question, whether or not you would be a security risk.”

Many people in Oak Ridge on Saturday were not quiet or fearful, however. Some traveled from Michigan, Ohio, North Carolina, and Georgia. They held banners and adorned buttons expressing their various reasons of discontent for nuclear weapons.


Photographs by Nicholas Foster


Some pointed out the hypocrisy of the US government in building nuclear weapons, while it commands other countries not to do the same thing. Others had more personal reasons to protest.

Marjorie Steakley, 44, of Memphis, Tennessee, was at the rally to tell the story of her father Marvin Steakley, a former lieutenant in the Marines who was sent to Hiroshima just a few weeks after the atomic bomb was dropped.

Mr. Steakley, 81, of Dallas, Texas, was exposed to the radiation, and has suffered ever since. In subsequent decades he developed and was treated for cancer of the thyroid, lungs, and lymph nodes, Marjorie Steakley said.


Photographs by Nicholas Foster

A group of eight people from Ohio wished to raise extra awareness of nuclear activities in their own state by relay-running more than 500 miles from Columbus, Ohio, to Oak Ridge. Their international group, called Footprints for Peace, expressed concerns for the US Department of Energy’s (DOE) plans to build a nuclear waste facility near Cincinnati, dubiously dubbed the “American Recycling Center.”

“If you oppose it, you’re anti-American and anti-recycling, so they really thought that name out well,” Jim Torrent, Footprints for Peace runner, said.


Plans for the Ohio center include collecting depleted uranium from all over the world and building a reactor to recycle them into “dirty bombs” or “bunker busters.” These notorious weapons–which have received little coverage in the US corporate media–have been linked to human health problems where they have been used, including leukemia and Gulf War Syndrome.

“On August 6, 2007, unless I’m in Hiroshima, [Oak Ridge] is the place to come,” Torrent said. “This is where the atomic age started.”

The DOE also has plans for a $2 billion expansion of Y-12 where it could develop the “Reliable Replacement Warhead.” This warhead is supposed to last longer than the traditional models.

The DOE began preparing an environmental impact study in December 2005, but has delayed the release of its draft several times. When it does release the draft, a 30-day public comment period will be announced.

Some of Saturday’s protesters argued that the mere existence of Y-12, much less the expansion, violates international law. But the law–the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty–is ambiguous.

The treaty does not call for disarmament, but rather “to pursue negotiations in good faith … to nuclear disarmament.” Also, after the treaty was implemented, five other countries developed nuclear weapons.

The US National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) maintains that “Y-12 performs critical roles in strengthening national security and reducing the global threat from weapons of mass destruction.”

Of course, many activists questioned that logic.

“The US Government is all about business, and its primary business is war,” Bobbie Paul, Field Coordinator of the Atlanta WAND, said. “Nuclear weapons and the US military-industrial complex terrorize and impoverish the world.”

The United States spends more on its military than any country. It spends nine times as much as China and Russia. The US Government has more than 10,000 nuclear weapons, and it spends well more than half of its federal budget each year — more than $500 billion — on The Pentagon and US occupation of Iraq.

If only a small fraction of military spending were cut, the possibilities of improving world social conditions would be nearly endless.

This was the nineteenth annual nuclear protest in Oak Ridge. The gathering was smaller this year than last year, sources said. More than 300 attended last year, and more than 1,000 attended two years ago on the 60th anniversary of the bombing of Japan.

About the author:

Nicholas Foster is a Contributing Writer for The Atlanta Progressive News and may be reached at

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