The Inner Life of the Deadly Machine

The Inner Life of the Deadly Machine

By Helen Shortal

Vol. 12, No. 5, 1990, pp. 7-10

Building Bombs. Produced and directed by Mark Mori and Susan Robinson.

Building Bombs is making news. Both CNN and NBC News have broadcast footage from the one-hour documentary that examines the human cost of nuclear-weapons production at the Savannah River Plant in Aiken, S.C.

Even MTV has taken notice of the film, since Building Bombs has been promoted by rock musicians such as Michael Stipe of R.E.M. and Dave Wakeling of the now defunct General Public. When MTV learned that Wakeling would be on hand for the film’s premier in Washington, D.C., the network dispatched a video crew to the Biograph Theater in Georgetown. A segment featuring interviews with Wakeling and Atlanta-based filmmaker Mark Mori along with the music of R.E.M. was later shown on MTV.

The five-year effort to produce and distribute Building

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Bombs began in 1984 when Mori and two friends decided to film a peace demonstration near the mammoth weapons complex. The ad hoc film crew paid a visit to the antinuclear activists who were living at a peace encampment near the Savannah River Plant. “We just started shooting protesters,” says Mori. “But then we met Arthur Dexter and Bill Lawless.”

Both Dexter and Lawless had worked at “the bomb plant,” as it is known to local residents. And both men recounted highly personal tales of their disillusionment with the nuclear industry.

Lawless, a former Department of Energy investigator, was sent to the Savannah River Plant to assess the amount of radioactive waste buried in the South Carolina soil. He submitted a report that detailed the widespread contamination and serious hazards at the plant. And DuPont de Nemours Co., which managed the plant until last year, pressured him to retract his findings. Lawless became the first Department of Energy official to testify about the bomb plant’s hazardous conditions.

Of the many horror stories Lawless told, the one that received the most attention concerned the disposal of low-level radioactive materials at the plant; objects contaminated with radioactivity were place in cardboard boxes and buried in pits. The 192-acre burial ground at the plant contained everything from protective gloves to bulldozers. And the boxes were caving in, contaminating the soil and the groundwater with radioactivity.

Arthur Dexter was a former physicist at the plant. Ironically, he had gone to work at the bomb plant to avoid fighting in the Korean war; only DuPont had the power to exempt Dexter from the draft. His new job, testing the movement of gases through various materials, “seemed quite innocent at the time,” says Dexter in the film. “Only later did I realize I was working on weapons.”

As the years passed, Dexter became uncomfortable with the stockpiling he observed at the bomb plant, which housed enough plutonium and tritium to manufacture 30,000 bombs like the one dropped on Nagasaki. “It seemed rather obscene,” he says. After Dexter quit working at the plant he became involved in the Aiken Peace Movement and with Warhead Watch, a group that tracks nuclear weapons transported on public highways.

As Mori interviewed the pair of Savannah River Plant insiders, he began to envision a different kind of protest film. Building Bombs would focus on life inside the bomb plant rather than rail against the hazards and abuses of the nuclear industry.

During 1985, Mori met his future partner, Susan Robinson, at Atlanta’s IMAGE Film/Video Center for independent film and video artists. A producer of interactive projects and corporate videos, Robinson had a background in instructional design–and a strong interest in environmental issues. She had attended her first demonstration at the Savannah River Plant when she was 16.

But neither Mori nor Robinson had produced a feature length film before. “We were first-time filmmakers, and everyone told us to just make a simple expose–the story of Dr. Lawless and those cardboard boxes,” says Robinson. “But we felt that personal responsibility, political ideology, and history all came together in this story, and we wanted to tell the whole thing. Becoming politically aware and active is a developmental process, and we believed that if we could tell the stories of these men and the changes they made in their lives, they would serve as role models.”

Robinson and Mori began compiling research materials, photographs, film footage, and interviews about a wide range of topics pertaining to the bomb plant. They unearthed archival footage of cardboard boxes labeled “Radioactive Waste” being tossed into pits in the burial ground. They filmed a pro-nuclear rally in 1984 where former Secretary of Energy James Edwards delivered a speech about the economic benefits of the nuclear industry. And they interviewed workers and family members about working conditions at the plant, the region’s mounting health problems and life in the company town.

“We tried to design the film for people who weren’t necessarily sensitive to these issues,” says Mori. “People expect Building Bombs to be a regular anti-nuclear film, but we wanted to make it more than that. We wanted to look at the lives of the human beings who work in the nuclear industry.”

Not that Building Bombs skimps on the Savannah River Plant or its role in the arms race. But its litany of mismanagement and impending doom is softened by the filmmakers’ empathy for the people whose lives have been affected by the bomb plant.

As the film begins narrator Jane Alexander describes the growth of the nuclear industry in South Carolina. In 1950, the Atomic Energy Commission selected the region near rural Ellenton, S.C., as the ideal location for manufacturing plutonium and tritium. The U.S. government relocated more than 6,000 residents to dear a vast trace of land. Three towns were demolished to make room for the bomb plant, which encompasses some 300 square miles of land in three counties.

“But with the destruction came prosperity,” recounts Alexander. The Savannah River Plant was one of the largest construction projects in modern history. More than 200 miles of highway wind through the five-reactor complex, which currently employs about 15,000 workers.

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Building Bombs makes it clear that the nuclear industry bought its way into South Carolina with a promise of prosperity. “Over $30 billion has been brought into South Carolina as a result of the nuclear industry,” exhorts Edwards at the pro-nuclear rally. “That’s big money…. We talk about all the problems that nuclear brings, but $5 million has been spent just on monitoring this area.”

Nowadays, money buys silence from the people who operate the bomb plant–and live in its shadow. A housewife interviewed in Building Bombs says that Aiken residents won’t petition for a health study of the local population, even though “it seems like too much of a coincidence when you have four or five people in the same block dying of cancer.” She says people are afraid of losing their jobs or their pensions.

The filmmakers got a firsthand look at the business of building bombs when they received permission to shoot inside the enormous complex. Working under constant supervision, their volunteer crews filmed the remote controlled processes used to produce plutonium and tritium. When the crew moved outside to shoot the burial ground, they were given protective booties to wear. “The soil in the burial ground was radioactive,” says Mori. “All of our shots had to be hand-held. We couldn’t even put our tripod on the ground.”

Building Bombs mixes hard facts about the irresponsible dumping of radioactive chemicals with anecdotes that are no less thrilling. DuPont officials discovered that the turtles that swam in these “seepage basins” had become contaminated by radiation, so plant workers combed the surrounding streams and woodlands in an attempt to contain the turtle-powered migration of highly radioactive strontium-90.

“We’ve uncovered some things in this film that still haven’t gotten into the mainstream media,” says Robinson. A “deep throat” source at the plant informed the filmmakers that the concrete floors are disintegrating in the Canyon Buildings, where plutonium and tritium are extracted from fuel rods. Thirty-five years of bombardment by radiation is turning the floors into sponge. While Westinghouse, which currently manages the plant, has made no response to this allegation, Robinson believes that this silence constitutes assent. “We’ve shown the film in Aiken,” she says, “and none of the facts have been refuted.”

There’s a dark humor in Building Bombs that arises from pointing out the gap between rhetoric at the Savannah River Plant. When plant officials were warned that radioactive wastes might spread beyond the burial ground, for example, “DuPont stated that the radioactivity was so low that it would never outcrop,” recounts Alexander. “The first outcrop occurred in 1978, one year later.” At the Biograph screening of Building Bombs an explosion of laughter greeted a confession by a rake-happy Secretary of Energy Edwards that “I’m a sort of environmentalist myself.”

Robinson and Mori met with initial resistance when they tried to arrange a screening in Aiken. But when they did succeed in scheduling the film, the South Carolina premier of Building Bombs was the lead item in the local

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news for two days. A plant worker informed Greenpeace that Westinghouse issued a memo to advise its 15,000 employees that the film would be screened in Aiken. Mori believes the memo was intended to spur a show of company solidarity at the screenings.

More than 600 people attended screenings of Building Bombs in Aiken and nearby Augusta, Ga. Many of them were workers from the Savannah River Plant. “People were pretty hostile going into the screening,” says Mori. “But there were people in the film that they lived and worked with–people that spoke their language. It affected them. When they left the screening, a lot of people said they needed to think about what we’re doing at the Savannah River Plant.”

“The most difficult part of getting the film out was raising the money–convincing people that the film needed to be made,” says Mori. “We started working on Building Bombs before it was popular to criticize the nuclear industry. We were actually filming at the Savannah River Plant when Chernobyl happened. We’d been there getting a shot to show there was no containment dome [above the reactor]. We were driving home that night, and we heard over the radio that there’d been a big release of radiation.”

Not surprisingly, fundraising became easier after the April, 1986 accident at Chernobyl released 50-billion curies of radiation into the atmosphere. Now that Building Bombs is finished, Robinson and Mori are raising money to promote the film and court a distributor. During the past year the pair has raised about $20,000 to finance trips to film festivals, competitions and conventions where programs are marketed to broadcasters and distributors. Building Bombs was awarded a Silver Hugo in the social/political documentary category at the 1989 Chicago Film Festival.

“It’s always been difficult to be an independent filmmaker,” says Mori. “The U.S. is one of the worst places for independents. You can’t get funding and you can’t get your films shown.” Mori is on the steering committee of the national Coalition of Independent Producers, which successfully lobbied Congress to allocate $6 million per year for independent television productions.

Robinson and Mori are not the only filmmakers pointing their cameras at the nuclear industry. But they believe their film is uniquely successful in capturing the rhythm of Southern life. “There’s something very Southern about Building Bombs,” says Robinson. “It meanders; it takes its time. Gradually, it tells viewers that the situation is an emergency.”

Mori believes the slower pace of his hometown fostered his five-year dream of documenting life at the Savannah River Plant. “I couldn’t have made Building Bombs if I lived in LA or New York,” says Mori. “As first-time filmmakers, we probably would have been laughed out of town. The industry there is too overpowering.”

Helen Shortal is associate editor of In Motion magazine. This review first appeared in In These Times, and is reprinted here with permission. (For information on rental or purchase of Building Bombs, write to Box 5202, Station 13, Atlanta, GA 30307.)