The Bomb Plant on Trial
By Sue Bowman
Vol. 6, No. 1, 1984, pp. 10-12
Fifty demonstrators who blockaded entrances to the Savannah River Plant last fall were found guilty of a traffic violation January 11, but the nuclear weapons facility which produces the plutonium for US weapons, sustained a direct hit to its reputation.
The two-day trial of the protesters, before Aiken, South Carolina, Magistrate Court Judge Max A. Meek, resulted from a demonstration October 24 hosted by the Natural Guard, a coalition of peace and environmental groups (see Southern Changes, December 1983). The blockade coincided with international demonstrations against nuclear weapons.
A three-man, three-woman jury deliberated over an hour before returning a guilty verdict for “failure to obey a police officer.” The defendants were sentenced to one-hundred dollar fines or eleven days in jail.
During the trial, blockaders explained that to prevent a “greater harm,” they were compelled to disobey police orders to leave the road in front of the plant. The thread running through expert testimony suggested that they had every reason to be concerned. A former Department of Energy “company man” confirmed allegations that SRP has withheld reports of widespread radioactive contamination; an authority on the medical effects of radioactive contamination warned that the plant endangers the lives of people living around it; a retired Navy admiral and Pentagon nuclear weapons strategist testified that increased production and deployment of nuclear weapons has greatly increased the threat of nuclear war and that the Bomb Plant would be a first target.
DuPont, contracted by DOE to run the plant, is guilty of a pattern of negligence and has suppressed information about radioactive contamination, according to DOE’s former head of nuclear waste management at SRP. William Lawless, nuclear waste project engineer for six years, said a 1981 report which outlined his criticisms of the waste program was reclassified as a “draft” report. He said DuPont objected to the contents of the report and that because of the reclassification, the document could be withheld from the public, even if requested through the Freedom of Information Act.
Lawless gave many examples of contamination reports withheld from the public and numbers-juggling by the company to make releases appear harmless.
One report deliberately withheld was a 1977 internal document which listed forty “monitoring wells” on SRP property which had been contaminated with radioactive tritium. Some of the wells contained levels of radiation 200,000 times that allowed for drinking water. (Out of court, Lawless said this discovery caused him to quit drinking plant water.) According to Lawless, the contaminated water, as much as 400,000 gallons from one well, was pumped out of the wells onto the ground to conceal high levels of radiation. This would result in temporarily lowered readings of contamination in those wells.
No records on types of hazardous and radioactive waste were kept at the “burial ground” at the plant. For twenty years, pipes in which tritium was manufactured were buried “uncapped” at the plant, contaminating the water.
There was extensive corrosion in twenty-seven high level waste tanks, even before they were fully constructed, and Lawless testified that reports of these conditions were deliberately suppressed.
Numbers were juggled and regulations rewritten to make releases of radioactive gases appear less significant. “In the real world, the gas is still there,” he said.
Robert Alvarez, Director of the Nuclear Weapons and Power Project for the Washington-based Environmental
Policy Institute called Lawless’ testimony “startling and highly significant …. This is the most significant finding about SRP that’s been made public in years.”
SRP officials accuse Lawless of misinterpreting facts, and said the reports were available to anyone who asked for them–but each report must be requested by name.
Lawless’ testimony about mishandling of waste at SRP, and discrepancies between public and internal reports, magnified the testimony by Dr. Carl Johnson, former Director of Public Health, Jefferson County, Colorado. Johnson told-the jury how the releases and discrepancies translated into dangers to health.
Johnson told the packed courtroom that declassified SRP internal documents from 1954-1975 showed radioactive releases were much larger than those reported to the public. On March 15, 1955, an accidental release of radiation resulted in radiation levels four hundred times background level. “In my opinion it should have resulted in evacuation of this area.”
Johnson said that it is hazardous to live in Aiken or the surrounding area, that residents lives are in danger “to a medical certainty.” Johnson based his predictions that the area would show high cancer rates on data from Hiroshima and Nagasaki and on his own extensive studies of health effects around the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons facility in Colorado. “There is no level of radiation without effect,” he said several times
Rear Admiral Gene LaRocque, retired after thirty-one years in the Navy, seven as Pentagon nuclear weapons strategist, brought the spectre of nuclear war into the courtroom. He spoke matter-of-factly about the vulnerability of facilities like SRP in a nuclear attack.
“Plutonium production facilities would be among the first targets,” he said. “If we hit a production facility (in the Soviet Union). . tit would spread radioactive material over a tremendous part of the country and be a devastating blow. . .It would be a natural first target. . .We would want to get their war-making capacity.”
“We need to assume that the whole Aiken area would be a prime target for a nuclear strike,” LaRocque said. If an attack hit right on the plant, due to wind shifts, “the radioactive materials would be impossible to control. . . We don’t have plans to deal with that sort of catastrophe.”
LaRocque said that with the offensive posture of US nuclear policy, we’ve actually decreased our national security. The military is geared to “fight to win. . we’re uncomfortable with deterrence.”
“We’re ready now in thirty minutes to destroy the Soviet Union. All the president has to do is say go.” he added.
LaRocque defended the blockaders’ tactic. “Civil disobedience is one of the many good ways to bring it to public attention. . .People should do something every day to prevent nuclear war.”
Framed in the context of expert testimony, defendants’ compelling reasons for blockading the road and being arrested made absolute sense. In the courtroom, a very diverse group of individuals told their stories.
Adele Kushner, a retired county employee and grandmother from Atlanta, said, “I have become concerned over what kind of world we are leaving for our grandchildren.” She said she had tried every other means to get her government’s attention before deciding to participate in the blockade.
Beth Ann Buitekant, a registered nurse from Atlanta, talked about the inadequacy of the health care system because of military expenditures. About weapons proliferation, she said, “I personally have no control over it, except to do exactly what I have been doing.”
Andy Summers, a Methodist minister and pastoral counselor from Savannah, downriver from the plant, said nuclear war would result in “destruction on such a massive basis that we hardly have the capability to think about it” and that this results in a “psychic numbing.” “We need to develop new, vivid symbols to come to grips with the worsening situation.”
Brett Bursey, program director of a social action organization in Columbia, South Carolina, noted, “Not only are they doing something against the wishes of the majority of the American people, but they’re lying about it.” He referred to Lou Harris polls indicating that three-fourths of the American people support a nuclear freeze.
Bursey expressed the importance of civil disobedience in American history, including the Boston Tea Party and civil rights movements. “There would not be black people on this jury if years ago black people didn’t refuse to go to the back of the bus,” he said, addressing the one black juror.
Ed Clark, 77, a church pianist from Greenville, said his participation in the blockade was “a way of bearing witness against the nuclear arms race. . .which could happen tomorrow. I felt it was an urgent matter–I had to take part.”
A former welder at SRP and other facilities, Butch Guisto, who grew up and still lives in Augusta, testified that his welds were never X-rayed, and that there was a “cavalier treatment about radioactive releases” at that plant. “I know for a fact that tritium releases occur,” relating that he had been present on several occasions. “I live in this area, and I’m just as responsible as anyone else,” he added.
Testimony in the trial deeply affected even the defendants, who are generally more educated about nuclear issues than the average citizen. Local farmer and blockader Steve McMillan had testified that he became concerned
about the Bomb Plant over a period of time. “I began to suspect the people in our area weren’t getting the truth,” he told the jury. Walking out of the courtroom after the verdict, he slowly shook his white head–“It’s worse than we said it was.”
The jury chose to take the prosecutor’s way out and find the defendants guilty of the traffic violation. “They broke the law, plain and simple,” Assistant South Carolina Attorney General James Bogle told the jurors.’
Defendant Randy Tatel commented on the jury’s decision. “I empathized with the jurors in that they couldn’t have remained objective in reviewing the evidence. It would have meant overcoming the numbness, the years of acceptance of the Bomb Plant in their back yard–they were told pointblank that the plant was killing them and their children and contributing to the threat of nuclear holocaust.”
But the “convicts” were jubilant. Not one expressed more than a shrug of “well, it would have been nice to be acquitted,” instead, conversation went to the impact of the trial. As one defendant later expressed, “The more I think about it, the more I realize how big we won. We never really expected to be acquitted, but think of the local education that occurred! The policemen listening to Dr. Johnson, the judge, the jury, people who will talk to the jury about what they heard, the list goes on.”
He concluded, “Maybe next time we will be acquitted as well.”
Sue Bowman lives in Columbia, South Carolina and writes regularly about Southern disarmament activities.