Centering on a single episode, a powerful declaration of conscience, a Washington Post reporter tells an intensely unsettling story about living with our nuclear arsenal.
In July 2012, cutting through fences topped with razor wire and avoiding guards, guns, sensors, armored cars, and alarms, an 80-year-old nun, a Vietnam veteran, and a housepainter, all deeply religious, all affiliated with the pacifist Plowshares movement, broke into the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, the “Fort Knox of Uranium.” Carrying hammers, cans of spray paint, a loaf of bread, seeds, bottles of blood, banners, and a written “message” explaining their action, the protestors spent hours inside the facility before their arrests. Was this security breach “a miracle,” as supporters claimed, or a “catastrophe,” as the government labeled it? Or was it both? Zak demonstrates that this strange and awful duality has been at the heart of the nuclear weapons debate from the beginning. Was the atom bomb’s first detonation, as President Harry Truman said, “the greatest thing in history,” or was it, as one of the scientists who first imagined it remarked, one of history’s “greatest blunders?” Using this trespass against Y-12, the activists’ biographies, arrests, prosecutions, and imprisonments, Zak skillfully intersperses a wider story, with nuances about the minds behind the bomb, so many of them populating the physics department at Columbia University, which taught the young Megan Rice, who’d grow up to become the protesting nun. New York was also ground zero for Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker movement, spiritual ancestor to the Berrigan brothers and today’s Plowshares anti-nuclear activists. While the author’s sympathies clearly lie with his protagonists, the narrative plays fair. Zak soberly recounts the Manhattan Project’s origins, charts the growth and development of the Oak Ridge facility, forthrightly assesses the difficulties surrounding arms reduction and security, and demonstrates the sheer persistence of problems relating to all things nuclear. More than anything, though, it’s the moral convictions demonstrated by Zak’s three holy fools that will remain with readers.
A scrupulously reported, gracefully told, exquisitely paced debut.