Where did Nevada’s anti-nuke movement go?
The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists is famous for its cover feature—a clock face on which the minute hand is moved forward or backward depending on how tense international relations are and how near is the threat of nuclear war. When the clock was created in 1947, it was set at seven minutes to midnight. By 1991, it was at 17 minutes to midnight.
The minute hand is now at two minutes to midnight, only the second time—the first was 1953—that it has been that close. In the early days of the clock, it tended to reflect concern about the Soviet Union. These days, there are additional concerns—China, military spending levels, climate change, guerrilla groups that might gain nuclear materials, and volatile national leaders.
Meanwhile, there is pressure to renew nuclear bomb testing in Nevada.
“America has two grave nuclear weapons vulnerabilities which are little known and less understood by the nation’s national security leadership,” wrote former U.S. Defense Nuclear Agency director Robert Monroe in the Washington Times this month. “First, we don’t know that the nuclear weapons in our arsenal will work; and second, our underground nuclear test capability in Nevada is so deteriorated that we are unable to conduct prompt tests to verify and certify these weapons. America is living with high existential risk. … Without question, America must resume underground nuclear testing.”
On Dec. 7 at Cathexes, 250 Bell St., author Gary Krane’s documentary, Losing Control, will be shown. On its original release, Washington Post columnist Mary McGrory wrote that the film “shows what can happen when two hostile nations, Syria and Israel in this case, start swapping tactical nukes and chemical weapons.”
President Obama and other leaders say the current war in Syria was fueled in part by that nation’s climate change-driven drought. In a study in the academic journal Weather, Climate, and Society, climate scientist Peter Gleick argued that “water and climatic conditions have played a direct role in the deterioration of Syria’s economic conditions.” That has driven the alleged use in Syria of chemical weapons, and some scholars worry that it could go further, to nuclear weapons.
Krane, a new Renoite, also says volatile leaders like Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump put the use of nuclear weapons into play.
All of this is happening as Nevada’s organizations that specialized in nuclear issues are defunct, and Krane calls that unfortunate. “I think all states should” have groups to police nuclear activity, he said. There is always high-powered pressure from the nuclear industry as well as the Pentagon, but no one in Nevada currently represents the other side.
There has been considerable talk of nuclear activism as a feminist issue. The current edition of the Nation magazine has a cover story—"Women against the bomb"—but that kind of activism has not surfaced in Nevada. The website of an organization called Beyond the Bomb has a map showing a Reno chapter, but when clicked it has no contact information, only the pitch, “Reno is organizing to prevent nuclear war. Join us!” Spokesperson Yasmeen Silva told us, “We used to have a volunteer in Reno, but she has recently graduated and is no longer living in Reno. This coming semester we will be looking to recruit more students to continue the chapter there.” But she also said the group does not want just students, but any citizens.
Is Nevada ready?
In the early days of the atomic age, Nevada’s test site was badly run, with the Atomic Energy Commission endangering the public while suppressing information citizens needed to protect themselves.
It was widely assumed locally that Nevadans supported the testing as economic development, but there were no ways of determining it. State legislative hearings were not yet used heavily as public forums, if they were held at all. Opinion surveys in the state did not exist. And citizen activism was rare. Moreover, opposing the testing program could be portrayed as unpatriotic. But there were indications of grass roots concern. The papers of former congressmembers include letters from constituents asking about the safety of the program.
One locally-famous missive came from rancher Martha Bardoli Laird, who lived directly east of the test site. A year after her 7-year-old son died of leukemia, she wrote to Republican U.S. Sen. George Malone, and she received a response from him that said, “It is not impossible to suppose that some of the ‘scare’ stories are Communist inspired.” A letter she sent to Atomic Energy Commission chair Lewis Strauss brought her a response that said, “Former President Truman said the dangers that might occur from the fallout in our tests involve a small sacrifice when compared to the infinitely greater evil of the use of nuclear bombs in war.”
When University of Colorado scientists Ray Lanier and Theodore Puck wrote a report calling fallout from Nevada a public health threat, Colorado Gov. Ed Johnson said they should be arrested, and the Hearst press red-baited them.
In that kind of political climate, Nevada citizens may have been reluctant to speak out.
One Nevada politician, Gov. Grant Sawyer, was suspicious of the federal assurances of safety. He declined to tour the test site, unwilling to give the governor’s imprimatur to the testing program.
With most Nevada leaders supporting the program and businesspeople enjoying the economic benefits, there was little debate over testing. But as the state grew and its demographics changed, discontent began to appear. In 1975, as a spinoff of Maya Miller’s 1974 U.S. Senate campaign, two of her volunteers—Katherine Hale and Susan Orr—formed Citizen Alert, the state’s first successful organization to scrutinize and combat hazardous nuclear policies. It functioned for the next 35 years.
An important political development came in 1979, when newly inaugurated Gov. Robert List, just days after taking office, sent a wire to federal officials inviting the Carter administration’s proposed MX nuclear missile system installation to Nevada. The system would be the largest construction project in human history. List’s expectation that the system would be welcome in the state was not unusual, but he was quickly hit by a public backlash from unhappy citizens. When Nevada and Utah were designated for the project, a vigorous movement led by Citizen Alert developed in opposition. List reversed his position and other leaders joined him. After four years of grass roots resistance to the plan, a new President—Ronald Reagan—canceled the Nevada/Utah basing for the missile system.
By then, anti-nuclear forces in the state were well organized, aided by another nuclear issue that had run concurrently with MX—sloppy operation of the state’s waste dump for low level nuclear and chemical wastes near Beatty. That state dump was shut down after repeated safety violations.
So when a proposal to put a dump for high-level nuclear wastes into the state at Yucca Mountain was advanced in the early 1980s, the opposition infrastructure was ready. A scientific competition between sites in three states was suddenly canceled in 1987, and Nevada alone was targeted, subverting the scientific aspect. That ignited a fury inside the state that gave powerful political support to state leaders who battled the dump, and they slowed progress on it to a crawl. The 1998 date for opening the dump came and went without notice. State government now had an agency that monitored nuclear projects. Citizen Alert was augmented by Citizens Against Nuclear Waste in Nevada.
Then, in 2005, Nevada’s U.S. Sen. Harry Reid became the Democratic floor leader of the Senate. It gave the state more power with which to block the Yucca project, and Reid slowly brought the project to a de facto halt. When Barack Obama became president, he zeroed out the budget for the dump.
These successes were accompanied by a decline in the citizen activism that had been so much a part of the fight. With no in-state threats, like MX or Yucca, the opposition infrastructure has deteriorated. Within five years after Reid became floor leader in the Senate, Citizen Alert was gone. (Co-founder Orr died on Sept. 9.) Krane said the state should now get ready for efforts to test bombs by organizing Nevadans.
“The only way we’re going to be able to significantly reduce … the number of nuclear weapons, ideally eliminate them, is by mass movements,” he said.
There is one indication that new testing would not be received without objection by an existing political group, though it is not specifically nuclear-oriented. Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada director Bob Fulkerson said, “We’d have to lead some direct action against it."