Almighty: Courage, Resistance, and Existential Peril in the Nuclear Age

By Dan Zak, Blue Rider Press, hardcover, $27, 416 pp., ISBN 9780399173752

In this important and carefully researched book's acknowledgements, the author advises: "I am not an historian, physicist, lawyer, diplomat, activist, or beat reporter, so I’ve depended on people who are."

The point of departure and continuing theme for this work, which in the end requires all the disciplines mentioned and perhaps some others, started at about 2 a.m. on 28 July 2000. Three activists, each with a prior history of non-violent public political demonstration against the use or manufacture of nuclear weapons, broke into the presumably securely-guarded Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. The facility was believed to be so immune against invasion some workers jokingly called the facility the Fort Knox of uranium. The three who invaded the "impenetrable" facility included two middle-aged men, both army veterans — Vietnam vet Michael Walli, 53, and housepainter Greg Boertje-obed, 57 — and an 82-year-old nun, Sister Megan Rice. They were armed with bolt cutters and three hammers to break the chainlink fence surrounding the property. In addition they carried banners with biblical messages and containers of human blood with which they later marked the Y-12 building. They were confronted by an armed guard in a vehicle to whom the nun bowed and spoke first: "Will you listen to our message?" The surprised guard ordered them to stop and asked "How did you get in here?" Calling from the vehicle, he was soon reinforced by another officer who drew his revolver. The first officer's failure to draw his weapon and act forcefully later resulted in his firing from his position. This caused him and his family a great deal of pain, which the author addresses in detail.

Five hours elapsed before the activists were handcuffed and removed to the county jail. Sister Megan phoned a supporter: "We did everything we wanted to do. It's a miracle." The government authorities at Oak Ridge characterized the matter somewhat differently as "a catastrophe."

At the subsequent trial, the three activists were charged with a multiplicity of felonies including sabotage and destruction of government property. Quickly convicted, the male defendants were given prison terms of just over five years. Sister Megan Rice faced the judge and said: "Please have no leniency with me. To remain in prison for the rest of my life would be the greatest honor you could give me. Thank you. I hope it will happen."

Of course, the judge who seemed relatively compassionate said to the defendant: "Sister Rice, I know you want a life sentence and I just can’t accommodate that request. Not only am I confident that you will live long past any sentence I give you, but I am sure that you will continue to use that brilliant mind you have. I only hope you’ll rise to effectuate changes in Washington rather than crimes in Tennessee." He gave Sister Rice a sentence of two years and eleven months.

Addressing all the defendants, he had a somewhat surprising comment: "I wish you the best of luck and I appreciate your good work, and I hope you will continue them." Almost two years later, May 22, 2015, the judge ordered the immediate release of the prisoners after an appeals court overturned their conviction by a vote of two to one.

In a later interview, Zak was asked what prompted him to write Almighty. He answered: "I was educated in grade school by Catholic sisters; that had something to do with it." To another question, he was asked what was the most surprising thing that you encountered in your research. He answered: "The money! Since 1940 we have spent ten trillion dollars on the weapons; the only thing we spent more on during that time is non-nuclear defense and Social Security. So you can argue that nuclear weapons have been our third highest priority, ahead of infrastructure, agriculture and on and on."

Zak's book is remarkably comprehensive, starting from physics experiments in Columbia University in the 1940's, running through all aspects of the Manhattan Project, weapons tests in Nevada, further weapons tests in the Marshall Islands, and a full-scale inventory of assembled nuclear weapons in Amarillo, Texas. He discusses the disastrous consequences of nuclear weapons detonations through conflict or accident.

The United States maintains a large atomic and thermonuclear weapons inventory comprising three components. The first are air force planes loaded with gravity bombs. So far, these are the only nuclear weapons used in war with devastation to Hiroshima from a uranium-235 bomb dropped on 6 August 1945, and to Nagasaki from a plutonium-239 bomb dropped on 9 August 1945. The second are ballistic missiles in underground silos throughout the country. They can target anywhere in the world in thirty minutes or less. Unlike the bombers, which can be recalled, once launched the missiles cannot be recalled. The third element in the triad are submarines with nuclear missiles. The bombs launched from the submarines can be targeted against an attack by an enemy and would survive a first strike or a counter-attack.

The following observation by Admiral William Gortney, North American Aerospace Defense Commander, at a conference with students in 2015, might be reassuring or horrific or both: "I don’t see us being nuclear-free in my lifetime or in yours."

Two recent publications requiring attention and action by the scientific community and the public should be added to the very extensive bibliography furnished in this book: First, The Big Science of Stockpile Stewardship, by Victor H. Reis, Robert J. Hanrahan, and W. Kirk Levedahl, Physics Today, Vol. 69, August 2016, pp. 46-53. In the quarter century since the U.S. last exploded a nuclear weapon, an extensive research enterprise has maintained the resources and know-how needed to preserve confidence in the country’s stockpile. Second, an article by David E. Sanger and William J. Broad in the New York Times, 6 September 2016, with the headline "Obama Unlikely to Vow No First Use of Nuclear Weapons."

Leonard Solon, Ph.D.

These contributions have not been peer-refereed. They represent solely the view(s) of the author(s) and not necessarily the view of APS.