Thursday, August 17, 2006

From the heart of the global nuclear weapons complex…

On August 8th, six of the seven members of the self-described “UC Weapons Inspection Team” arrived in New Mexico for an 11-day volunteering stint with the Los Alamos Study Group (LASG). Our first day here took place at an appropriately frenetic pace. Within hours of our arrival, we were whisked away to a National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) hearing regarding -- and I’m not describing the purpose of the event using anything close to official language -- the NNSA’s plans to make the Los Alamos National Laboratory the nation’s new plutonium bomb core factory, with a production rate of (ultimately) over 100 new plutonium pits per year.

None of us knew in advance we would have the opportunity to speak at the hearing, but I and a few others still provided five minutes of off-the-cuff testimony regarding such themes as the senselessness of building new plutonium pits, now or ever, and the University of California’s crucial role in legitimizing nuclear weapons research in Los Alamos. We also cobbled together a collective Group Statement that, among other things, recounted recent remarks by United Nations Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission Chairman Hans Blix to the effect that the UN should investigate the Los Alamos lab for violations of international law.

The NNSA hearings -- the one in Los Alamos, as well as the ones the following two nights in Espanola and Santa Fe -- were marked by a large, unequivocal outpouring of opposition to plutonium pit production. At least 70 people spoke, combined, at the three hearings. Not a single one spoke in favor of pit production, or even of the idea of a “U.S. nuclear deterrent.” The sentiment was unanimous: New Mexicans want real security, not a toxic bomb-trigger factory in their backyard.

The UC Weapons Inspection Team stood out strongly at each of the hearings, thanks in part to our handy lab coats bearing “UC Weapons Inspector” on the back and embroidered patches that read (in part) “University of California - In Bombs We Trust” on the front.

At the first two hearings, though we spoke passionately and were very well-received by most people, we didn’t quite find our best voice. This was particularly the case in Espanola, one of the poorest cities in New Mexico, despite -- or, perhaps, as a consequence of -- being adjacent to Los Alamos, which receives over $2 billion in funding annually from the federal government and fancies itself, with absolutely no justification, as an economic godsend for those who live nearby. Many of the UC Weapons Inspectors felt hesitant about strongly asserting their anti-lab views in a place where, as Greg Mello and Trish Williams-Mello of the Los Alamos Study Group informed us beforehand, many people are strongly pro-military and roughly ¼ of the population works at LANL.

(For the record, our fears turned out to be misplaced, since the participants in the Espanola hearing were perhaps more fervently opposed to pit production than those at any of the other two).

At the third hearing, in Santa Fe, we seized the moment. Buoyed by the relatively trenchant resistance we had taken part in the previous two nights, we (semi-politely) took over the hearing mid-way through, then facilitated a democratic decision-making process for those in attendance to decide what they’re actually going to do to stop plutonium pit production, as part of the larger process of working for nuclear abolition. Given that every single person who spoke at each of the hearings is against plutonium pit production, we suggested, the question at hand is no longer what people think about pit production, but what actions they’re going to take to put a halt to it.

The crowd’s reaction told the story. Smiles brightened many people’s faces. Their eyes lit up. When we asked who among them would be interested in meeting with New Mexico legislators to tell them “no nukes,” the vast majority raised their hands. When we asked who would like to take part in non-violent civil disobedience to halt pit production, about half raised their hands. When we asked, at the outset, whether we should be allowed to conduct a democratic decision-making process despite the moderator’s protestations, virtually everyone’s hands shot up.

One group of people that wasn’t hearing us at this moment was the NNSA security guards, who had been hiding away in a separate room and started to approach us as soon as what we were doing became clear. In other words, we tried to introduce a bit of democracy into a process set up to be authoritarian and largely a waste of energy for virtually everyone involved, and we were nearly hauled out of the building as a result.

Though the non-violent civil disobedience we proposed probably won’t take place anytime soon, the meetings with legislators will happen in the coming days. More important, the fact that a group of young people would come all the way from California, in part to speak out at these hearings, has made a powerful impression on people. Despite having to scramble to be even psychologically prepared to be part of the meetings, let alone speak at them, we likely inspired more people in New Mexico during our first three nights here than we previously thought possible.

In the coming days, I’ll recount some of our other activities in New Mexico, as well as provide more information on the current activities of the Los Alamos lab, and pictures from the trip.

Will Parrish, Youth Empowerment Director
Nuclear Age Peace Foundation

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