Blockading the Bomb Plant

Blockading the Bomb Plant

By Sue Bowman

Vol. 5, No. 6, 1983 pp. 5-7

Demonstrations against the deployment of US Cruise and Pershing missiles have been mounted all over Europe this fall. In West Germany the campaign is called “Hot Autumn.” Included in the protests are civilly disobedient blockades of the American bases, scheduled as the deployment sites for the first-strike missiles.

In the early morning hours of October 24, the Natural Guard blockaded the “Bomb Plant” in South Carolina, the birthplace of every one of the United States’ nuclear weapons.

The pre-dawn light revealed about one-hundred people filing down the shoulder of Highway 125 toward the Jackson gate of the Savannah River Plant. Cars zipped by, their headlights glancing off the signs and banners that the protesters carried. The drivers looked straight ahead and kept moving–it was seven a.m., shift change, and they were among sixteen hundred workers entering this gate to be at work by 7:45 at SRP, the nation’s current producer of bomb-grade plutonium and tritium.

At the precise moment it was light enough to distinguish human forms from shadows, two cars travelling abreast on the highway slowed and stopped, halting the entire flow of traffic. Occupants of the car, members of a Natural Guard “affinity group” from Charleston, jumped out and positioned themselves and their banners in the road. The two cars pulled away, leaving the determined human roadblock.

Police, who had expected the protest but were unsure of the form it would take, immediately moved to arrest the blockaders, but as those people were dragged away, another group thirty yards back stepped into the road. This was repeated by three more groups.

Forty-five minutes later the traffic was still blocked. At one point the stoppage stretched back to Augusta, Georgia, twelve miles from the gate. Fifty-four people were arrested at the Jackson gate, as supporters cheered from the sidelines and chanted, “No Pershing, no Cruise, either way we all lose!” and “The people united will never be defeated!”

At the New Ellenton gate of the three hundred and twelve square mile facility a group of approximately sixty women who had participated in a peace camp sponsored by the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) converged on a busy intersection at a red light. Twenty-five women blocked that entrance for fifteen minutes.

Seventy-nine blockaders were charged with refusing to obey police officers’ orders to leave the highway. Bond was set at $110.25. Some refused to give their names and were denied bond, some chose to stay in rather than pay bond for financial or moral reasons, and others bonded out the same day. Trial was initially set for November 8, but requests for jury trial have pushed the date to January 9.

The blockade capped a weekend of anti-nuclear actions that began with a Saturday rally at a site approved by SRP officials. Speakers at the rally included Anthony Guarisco of the National Association of Atomic Veterans, who spent sixty-seven days at ground zero in the Bikini Islands; Rebecca Johnson, a participant in the two-year-old peace encampment at Greenham Commons, a US base in England and one of the first deployment sites for the cruise missiles; Kay Camp, former member of President Carter’s Nuclear Disarmament Committee just returned from meetings with European peace activists; and many others.

The events were sponsored by the Natural Guard, a coalition of peace, environmental and human rights groups. The platform for the actions called for a halt to the global testing, production and deployment of all nuclear weapons, the funding of human needs over the military, and an independent study of the health and economic impacts of nuclear weapons production at SRP.

The Savannah River Plant was constructed hastily in the early 1950s, part of the government’s anti-communist thrust and the global powers’ race to gain thermonuclear superiority. The federal Atomic Energy Commission swallowed 312 square miles–two towns, six thousand people and 6,100 graves–in a rural corner of South Carolina, taking chunks out of Barnwell, Aiken and Allendale counties. Displaced farmers couldn’t buy land for what the government paid them, and the economy quickly shifted from its agricultural base to a dependence on the Bomb Plant. Today nearly ten thousand people work there. It is difficult to find a person in the surrounding communities who has no personal or family connection with the plant.

SRP is owned by the Department of Energy, direct descendent of the AEC, and has been operated since the beginning by E.I. duPont de Nemours. DuPont has so downplayed its connection with the military that few know of its integral role in nuclear weapons. The company operates SRP on a cost-plus contract as its “patriotic duty,” according to a DuPont report entitled “Certain Information About the Savannah River Plant.”

The facilities include five reactors, three now churning out plutonium, one inactive, and the L Reactor, scheduled to restart this year. The L Reactor recently became the subject of a heated controversy when the state of South Carolina joined a suit by environmental groups to prevent the reactor from operating without an Environmental Impact Statement. The DOE reluctantly agreed under legal order to do an

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expedited EIS, but other questions remain unresolved and troublesome. The reactor will dump 176°F. water into Steel Creek because the reactors, unlike commercial plants, have no cooling towers; radiation releases are not controlled by containment structures: and the Tuscaloosa aquifer beneath SRP is threatened with eventual radioactive contamination (officials are now dealing with chemical contamination in the aquifer).

Meanwhile, production is being stepped up, with the possibility of a new reactor being sited at SRP, although there is increasing sentiment expressed by experts that the plutonium and tritium are not needed.

The Bomb Plant has operated for thirty years under the government’s cloak of mysticism–national security. Consequently, most of the reports on radioactive releases from the plant have been classified. Dr. Carl Johnson, former Director of Health for Jefferson County, Colorado, who has done extensive studies on health effects around the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons facility, examined declassified documents from SRP and found that routine and accidental releases of radiation have been several times that reported to the public. Although vital statistics indicate that rates of infant mortality, cancer and heart disease are higher study done surrounding counties, there has never been an independent study of the health effects caused by SRP’s operation.

An unpublished by DuPont has shown that “lung cancer and leukemia were significantly increased” among workers at the Savannah River Plant when compared with other DuPont workers and the general public, according to Bob Alvarez of the Washington based Environmental Policy Institute. Alvarez was asked to participate in a Center for Disease Control evaluation of the study.

Why did the Natural Guard take on the Bomb Plant with civil disobedience?

“Six years ago the Natural Guard took the point on opposition to nuclear waste and reprocessing with eight-hundred arrests in 1978 and 1979,” commented Natural Guard organizer Brett Bursey. “We were then viewed as the lunatic fringe. Now the governor and even Strom Thurmond have come around on that issue. Direct action is but one of the factors that change social and political realities–but I believe it is a dynamic catalyst that can light fire under an issue. The issue of nuclear disarmament will be resolved when the social and political costs outweigh the gains. We plan to be a significant cost they will have to consider.”

Jill Morris of Athens, Georgia, said she blockaded SRP “because the Bomb Plant is killing us–and if we don’t commit civil disobedience at the Bomb Plant we’re commit tiny ourselves to suicide.”

Local farmer Steve McMillan, who has long been a vocal opponent of SRP in every other forum available to him, said, “To tell you the truth, I’m putting my money where my mouth has been. I felt kind of lonesome out there–I knew I would probably get criticized by a lot of local people who would look down their nose at me and think I’m crazy, but it was time for me to take a stand for what I been saying.”

Randy Tatel commented, “When I decided that nuclear weapons were a political and humanistic insanity, I turned to find a legislator who represented me…and there were none. Consciously, it fell to my shoulders to be my own representative and take the military machine head-on. Civil disobedience then was a natural decision.”

Bursey notes that it is not a frivolous decision. “What we’re seeing now is that the government is ready and willing to crack down on civil liberties to stem mass protests like this.” He pointed to a legal maneuver by the federal government just before the blockade which would have drastically altered the character of the demonstration. “A federal judge virtually declared martial law in South Carolina.”

One week before the blockade, a US Attorney, prompted by the Department of Energy, asked federal judge Charles Simons for an injunction to prevent the Natural Guard from interfering with the operation of the Savannah River Plant. The injunction would have provided criminal contempt of court charges against anyone who trespassed or blocked access to the plant. Wording of the request went as far as to request that the injunction prevent anyone from aiding, abetting or assisting someone in trespassing or blocking access to SRP. It attempted to certify the Natural Guard as a class, subject to a class action suit, although it is not a membership organization but “an ad hoc coalition called together to host a specific event.”

U.S. Attorney Henry Dargan McMaster said the broad nature of the injunction meant protest organizers could be cited for contempt before the blockade and jailed without bond for six months and possibly longer. Bursey asked hypothetically, “Does that mean if a church takes up a collection to support the blockade, they could be held in contempt for aiding and abetting the blockaders?”

It was only the point of interfering with access that actually concerned the blockade plan. The Natural Guard’s stated objective was to block traffic on state property, never intending to trespass on federal land. The state misdemeanor carries a maximum penalty of thirty days and/or one hundred dollars, while trespass on SRP property would have brought a fine of one thousand dollars.

Federal officials, frustrated that they would have no jurisdiction and fearing that the state penalties would not discourage protesters, sought to extend federal authority onto state property. The idea was that with the injunction in place, the federal government would have the power to deal with anyone who even looked cross-wise at the Bomb-Plant if they could convince the court that such activity would irreparably threaten national security.

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Judge Charles Simons was glad to oblige the US Attorney’s request. Simons is used to power. As Strom Thurmond’s former law partner, maneuvered into judgeship by Thurmond under Nixon, he has long wielded a stern gavel in South Carolina. In numerous cases before him Simons has been openly hostile to anti-nuclear protesters. He said on the record that wherever Brett Bursey goes “violence is likely to follow”. He clearly expresses his view that the Natural Guard is more than a bunch of pesky demonstrators but a dangerous threat to national security.

During the three hour hearing, Simons told Natural Guard attorney Danny Sheehan, “We do things a little different in South Carolina,” and proceeded to talk at though he had already ruled even before he had heard the defense. When defense attorney Lewis Pitts protested, “We just feel the ballgame’s over,” the judge snapped, “I happen to be in the driver’s seat and we will move forward.”

“Regardless of the legal niceties I would be inclined to do whatever is necessary to protect the operation of the bomb plant,” Simons said.

The judge was riled by the suggestion that he may not have the authority to issue the injunction. “I don’t care if they (the protesters) are up in Columbia. I’d have not hesitancy about issuing an injunction if the operation of the SRP was in question.”

“If I don’t have the authority to enjoin, I’d be surprised,” he growled.

Natural Guard attorney’s argued that the injunction violated separation of powers because there were already penalties established by state and federal legislators for the violations protesters intended to commit. Sheehan noted “They are actually subordinating fundamental constitutional structures to get at these people.”

“Waving the red flag of national security is used frequently to blind the court,” Sheehan insisted.

Simons was not impressed and he slapped on the injunction with apparent relish. The ruling confused many people planning to attend the legal rally on Saturday, who believed Simons had made even that exercise illegal.

The Natural Guard made a mad dash for the Fourth Circuit of Appeals, racing to get a decision before the rally now only days away. On Friday night, an expedited hearing before one judge gained a suspension of Simons’ order pending a full hearing. Fourth Circuit judge Francis D. Murnaghas, Jr., ruled that the proposed actions would not be a grave threat to national security and that the First Amendment rights of the protectors would be impermissibly infringed upon by the injunction.

The constitutional nature of this case has prompted legal assistance from national and state organizations of the American Civil Liberties Union as well as several large firms specializing in constitutional law. The outcome will have implications for any group planning to demonstrate at federal facilities linked to national security.

The many-faceted international opposition to nuclear weapons, combined with a growing awareness of “the bomb in our backyard,” is tugging away SRP’s cloak of mysticism. The reality behind it is becoming more frightening. Antinuclear activists in the southeast will be increasingly called upon in the near future to “Blockade the Bomb Plant” not only with civil disobedience but with every means available to sane, intelligent and nonviolent people.

Sue Bowman lives in Columbia, South Carolina and writes regularly about Southern disarmament activities for several publications.