How to Keep an Atomic Bomb From Being Smuggled Into New York City? Open Every Suitcase With a Screwdriver.

Aug 21, 2018

By Kai Bird
Aug. 5, 2016
Courage, Resistance, and Existential Peril in the Nuclear Age
By Dan Zak
Illustrated. 402 pp. Blue Rider Press. $27.
This is a strangely captivating book — dark and utterly frightening, despite or perhaps because of the author’s dispassionate tone. Dan Zak, a versatile reporter for The Washington Post, has written an engaging story about three dogged peace activists — a house painter, a radicalized Vietnam War veteran and an 82-year-old Catholic nun — who in July 2012 blithely penetrated layers of security surrounding Y-12, an immense factory in Oak Ridge, Tenn., devoted to manufacturing highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons. After splashing human blood on the secret facility, Sister Megan Rice, Michael Walli and Greg Boertje-Obed were arrested, charged with a “federal crime of terrorism” and eventually sentenced to prison terms ranging from two years and 11 months to just over five years. But by penetrating the “Fort Knox of uranium” they demonstrated how a handful of actual “dacoits” might someday carry off an apocalyptic act of nuclear terrorism.
It is a nightmare possibility, but one that we have lived with since 1945. Zak reminds us in “Almighty” that not long after the obliteration of Hiroshima, Robert Oppenheimer, the “father of the atomic bomb,” was asked in a closed-door Senate hearing “whether three or four men couldn’t smuggle units of an [atomic] bomb into New York and blow up the whole city.” Oppenheimer nonchalantly replied, “Of course it could be done.” Asked if there was any means to detect such a suitcase bomb, Oppenheimer remarked dryly, “A screwdriver” (to open each and every crate or suitcase).
Some years later, our government commissioned a classified study of nuclear terrorism. Naturally, the report is still classified, but it is known in the business as the “screwdriver report.”
Even today, a quarter-century after the end of the Cold War, nine nations possess some 16,000 nuclear warheads; the United States and Russia each have more than 7,000 warheads. Four countries — North Korea, Pakistan, India and Israel — have developed nuclear arsenals and refuse to sign the Treaty on Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.
These grim facts should lead any reasonable person to conclude that humanity is screwed. The odds are that these weapons will be used again, somewhere and probably in the not-so-distant future. It may happen through human error or an idiotic technical failure. But given enough time, it is certain to happen if we learn to live with the bomb. (As Zak reports, last year ISIS was said to have captured 40 kilograms of uranium from Mosul University, so perhaps these Wahhabi-inspired fanatics will someday explode a crude “dirty bomb” made from conventional explosives and radioactive materials.)
The problem is that humans adapted decades ago to living with what Oppenheimer called the “gadget.” The Dr. Strange­loves among us have learned to love the bomb and even believe that it has kept the peace — or at least ended the possibility of total warfare on the scale of World War II. But most of us just try to live our lives, hoping vaguely that the worst will not happen in our lifetimes.
Zak’s “Almighty” is about the few stubborn souls who resist such complacency. Sister Megan Rice is one of them. She comes from that peculiar band of prophets, the whistle-blowers and dissenters who demand our attention by their bold acts of civil disobedience. Sister Megan and many others like her — Daniel Berrigan, Dorothy Day, Daniel Ellsberg — are products of what the novelist E.L. Doctorow called “our bomb culture.” They are the annoying, self-righteous voices from the wilderness who insist that they can spot impending disaster right around the corner. Zak makes it clear that it is hard to like these eccentric souls — and hard not to admire them.
Zak’s narrative is a perfectly measured blend of biography, suspense and history. He skillfully uses the small, finite story of the Y-12 protest to explore our national identity as a people whose culture is now intimately connected with things nuclear. Our bomb culture has not come cheap; the environmental costs have been devastating for many communities. And even though scores of governments — but not our own — are on record supporting a treaty that would ban nuclear weapons, Zak shows this is still an outlier dream. He quotes a United States admiral intoning: “I don’t see us being ­nuclear-free in my lifetime. Or in yours.”
We are stuck with Armageddon in our dreams. And in the meantime the Sister Megans of our bomb culture will no doubt try again and again to cry out against our complacency. But truly, it seems hopeless. As Billy Pilgrim laments repeatedly in Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse-Five,” “So it goes.”
Kai Bird is a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and a co-author, with Martin J. Sherwin, of “American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer.” His most recent book is “The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames.”

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