Reading Room

At Livermore Lab: Reflections of a Citizen Weapons Inspector

from Tri-Valley CAREs' April 1998 newsletter, Citizen's Watch

This is a first person account of the events of March 26, 1998, by Tri-Valley CAREs' member Stephanie Ericson, adapted from the Cal State University "Pioneer." (NOTE: longer, more detailed version available on request)

The morning news report announced that UN inspectors had been treated with courtesy and cooperation as they scoured one of Saddam Hussein's huge presidential palace compounds for evidence of chemical or biological weapons. As I rode toward Livermore, I knew that the nuclear weapons lab there was unlikely to afford me the same cooperation.

I was one of 30 members of a "citizen verification team" gathering at the Livermore Laboratory to look for evidence that the Lab was designing new nuclear weapons. Of course, we didn't really need to go inside the sprawling one-and-half-square-mile complex to know the answer.

Since 1952, when Livermore Lab was established, its mission has been to advance nuclear weapons science. While the world may have changed with the end of the Cold War, the mission of the Lab has not.

But I and other Bay Area anti-nuclear activists wanted to make a point. In our eyes, the virtuous posturing of the U.S. government toward Iraq over the possibility that it might be secretly continuing chemical and biological weapons programs was hypocritical. After all, what country first developed weapons of mass destruction? And used them? Moreover, who is still dragging its feet about negotiating with other nuclear nations toward the elimination of nuclear weapons, as it is committed to doing in an international treaty against nuclear proliferation? The answer, of course, is the United States.

Last month, during the crisis over Iraqi weapons inspections, a group of Canadians attempted a similar inspection of the Bangor Trident Submarine Base in Washington State. They sought to "illustrate the paradoxical behavior by nuclear weapons states ... threatening military force to ensure that a Third World Country has no weapons of mass destruction." This imaginative action caught our attention. So, in coordination with activists in New Mexico, we decided to simultaneously "inspect" the two U.S. nuclear weapons design labs.

Some of us donned white lab coats and sported powder blue berets with the UN insignia. Waving small UN flags in the brisk chill wind, we followed a simulated UN van and assembled across the street from the Livermore Lab's main gate. Former Los Alamos nuclear weapons designer Dr. Ted Taylor was "lead inspector."

"It troubles me more deeply than I can express that my country is prepared under some conditions to commit mass murder with nuclear weapons that I unfortunately, years ago, had a significant hand in bringing into being," said Taylor, who presently argues for the abolition of all nuclear weapons. "Having led the world into the nuclear age, we must now promptly lead it out," he concluded.

Taylor worries that continued nuclear weapons development may lead to pure fusion bombs, in which plutonium and highly enriched uranium reactions are no longer necessary to trigger hydrogen bombs. If that happens, it will be impossible to control nuclear proliferation, he said.

It was time for the team to collect "evidence." We were reminded that plutonium had been found in a nearby park several years ago and someone handed out "test tubes" for sampling soil. The glass jars were labeled "Hazardous - radioactive materials." I smiled as a friend pointed to the handwritten inscription on the lid of one: "Peach jam, 1997, Molly."

At the gate, we approached Laboratory officials flanked by a row of police in riot gear. "Access has been denied," was the predictable response. This included areas normally open to the public. We dispersed to perform our assigned tasks along the Lab's perimeter. I was to "lead" an investigation of the tritium (radioactive hydrogen) and plutonium buildings.

I looked through the fence at the twin white tritium towers and recalled that over the years, they had spewed forth huge amounts of tritium-equivalent to three quarters of the radioactivity dumped by the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. The health effects from these and other emissions on the community are not yet known. I didn't tarry long, however. Besides being thoroughly chilled by this time, I was anxious to get to a meeting with the state health department about the plutonium in that park... and maybe elsewhere.

But we vowed to return, bringing greater numbers with us each time. By building upon a growing global citizen's movement dedicated to abolishing nuclear weapons, we believe we can leave a safer world to our children and grandchildren.

Marylia Kelley Tri-Valley CAREs (Communities Against a Radioactive Environment)
Peace - Justice - Environment since 1983
5720 East Ave. #116, Livermore, CA USA 94550
(510) 443-7148 - phone
(510) 443-0177 - fax