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'Almighty' Follows Activists In The Fight Against Nuclear Weapons


In his new book "Almighty," Washington Post reporter Dan Zak introduces us to three modern-day activists - an 80 year old nun, a Vietnam veteran and a house painter. They all oppose the use and development of nuclear weapons. Through these three people's stories, Zak looks at America's complex relationship with the bomb from the Manhattan Project to the 70th anniversary of Hiroshima.

Our co-host Kelly McEvers talked with Zak about the activists and the larger questions their story raises. A warning to listeners that this conversation contains a graphic description of the effects of a nuclear blast.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: Dan Zak, welcome to the show.

DAN ZAK: Thank you, Kelly.

MCEVERS: This book is based on an article that you wrote for The Washington Post in 2013? Is that right?

ZAK: That's right.

MCEVERS: And it was called "The Prophets Of Oak Ridge."

ZAK: Yes.

MCEVERS: What was the story that you told in that piece?

ZAK: It was a story of a break-in at a nuclear weapons site in East Tennessee. It was - three peace activists in the middle of the night intruded into this weapon site, cut through four fences, climbed a wooded ridge and got up to the building that stores all of our highly enriched uranium. And they threw blood on it and spray painted biblical messages and essentially waited to be arrested.

MCEVERS: You know, that's a scene that we've heard before - people chaining themselves to sites and, you know, cutting fences and putting up signs. Why was this one a big deal?

ZAK: I think because it was - if you're ranking these actions the most successful and alarming, this was supposed to be one of the most secure sites in the world because it's probably the site that has the most fissile material stored. So you'd think you'd want to protect that from, you know, middle-aged and elderly activists. And because of the reputation of this site, the reaction to it was so strong.

MCEVERS: Right. And so it wasn't just a reminder that there is still this anti-nuclear movement out there but also just that, you know, security is lax at a place where it should not be.

ZAK: Yeah and also a reminder that we continue to maintain a significant arsenal and significant reserves of fissile material that are, you know, perhaps occasionally under-protected.

MCEVERS: Yeah and maybe under-reported. I mean, is that what got you interested in then taking a much deeper dive because this book covers basically a century of nuclear weapons development and the people who oppose that? I mean, that seems like a pretty major undertaking. What made you go so deep?

ZAK: I think it was personal for me because I was - as I reported the initial piece for The Post, I was shocked and felt profoundly guilty that I knew so little about the history. I was born in 1983. I came of age after the Cold War. I don't remember the Berlin Wall coming down. Nuclear weapons had no salience in my life.

So part of it was I felt this remedial self-education just as a citizen to kind of understand what's at stake now, what's at stake in the future. And how does history inform that?

MCEVERS: One of the things you do talk a lot about early in the book, of course, is the bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And first I wonder if you could just read a passage about Hiroshima. I mean, this is a really vivid description of what happened when the bomb was dropped on that city.

ZAK: Yeah. This is a description of the explosion over Hiroshima. Its blinding heat energy carbonized anyone within a half mile of ground zero. Thousands of pedestrians crumpled into crisp, black husks. Birds in flight burst like fireworks. Then came the blast wave which steam rolled houses and ripped off human flesh that had already been broiled by the flash, then the fireball itself which set five square miles of rubble ablaze and created a fire storm that chased the maimed into the delta city's tributaries which were soon clogged with floating corpses.

If a Japanese citizen survived all that, he became his own ticking time bomb. His cells stopped dividing because of the intense dose of radiation, which meant organ decay, hemorrhage and death in the hours and days afterward. All told, 160,000 people were dead, dying or injured in the aftermath.

MCEVERS: That is a pretty vivid description of what happens when one of these weapons is deployed.

ZAK: Yeah, and I think that is - what happens when one of these weapons goes off I think is lost on people today because it has been nearly 71 years since it was used in combat and decades since they've even been tested by the major nuclear powers. They've receded in memory - in the public memory because of that.

MCEVERS: And then eventually of course during the Cold War is really when we see the growth of this whole sort of anti-nuke movement, right? And I think a lot of us think of that movement as something from the '70s and '80s, you know?

Again you talk about this as being why you wrote this book, and you found, of course, not just in these three characters who broke into this place in Oak Ridge but others, you know, that there is a movement that is still very much alive. Is that right?

ZAK: Yeah, I mean, I think when you think of anti-nuclear activists, I think most people would think hippies. They would think a certain era. That kind of activism seems dusty anachronistic because the Cold War has been over for 25 years.

But there is still a very enthusiastic, if smaller, faction of people in the U.S. but also abroad in Europe that is very devoted and includes people who were born after the end of the Cold War who nevertheless are animated about the ongoing danger and also the morality of possessing nuclear weapons alone, let alone - you know, let alone using them - just having them as part of a national security strategy. So the work does continue. It's just a little less in the public eye than it was in the '40s, the '60s, the '80s.

MCEVERS: You also spent a lot of time talking about those who oppose nuclear weapons at the highest levels, right? Of course in one of his first major speeches as president, Barack Obama stood up in Prague and talked about America's commitment to a world without nuclear weapons. Then he got the Nobel Peace Prize.

And yet here we are seven years later, and the U.S. is set to spend a trillion dollars - is that right? - on its...

ZAK: That's right.

MCEVERS: ...On its nuclear arsenal. You know...

ZAK: Over the next 30 years.

MCEVERS: Yeah. What happened?

ZAK: You know, the question is that nuclear weapons remain kind of the foundation of our security. And the economies that have been created around them - they have a momentum because of that. And this president since his days in college has had nuclear weapons on his brain. His first major speech, as you mentioned, in Prague was about seeking a world without nuclear weapons.

He did hedge a bit in that speech and continues to hedge - which he says, this may not happen in my lifetime. I think he says that because he knows the U.S. government and military are not ready to get rid of these weapons as long as other people have them. The last time they were really overhauled was in the '80s. So we're kind of past due for doing that.

That responsibility has fallen in the lap of the commander in chief who I think is very at odds with even possessing them but knows in his position of authority that if we can't get rid of them right now, we have to modernize and overhaul them.

MCEVERS: Well, Dan Zak, thank you very much.

ZAK: Thank you, Kelly.

MCEVERS: Dan Zak is the author of the book "Almighty." It is out now. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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