My dear friend Bill Mitchell died on 25th May: a grievous loss for his family and friends as well as for all those who care about the Earth and about democracy. The story of Bill’s profound impact on my life and on the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research is a story really worth recounting as an example of the immense impact his life and work had on millions, yes millions, for remembering that we are again in the midst of rising nuclear dangers in the name of national security, and, not least, for describing the most extraordinary man he was.
As the Cold War began to thaw in the mid-1980s, Bill had the idea of bringing together democracy and environmental activists concerned about the dangers posed by Hanford (in Washington State), where the plutonium for the 1945 Nagasaki bomb and for much of the U.S. Cold War nuclear arsenal had been produced. Dark secrets lay there: tanks with liquid highly radioactive waste at risk of exploding; plutonium-laden waste dumped in open trenches; a 1949 experimental release of intensely radioactive iodine-131, known as the “Green Run”….Similar risks lurked throughout the country in the nuclear weapons complex owned by the U.S. government and operated with complete immunity from liability by multinational corporations, like DuPont and General Electric, and universities, with the University of California the most prominent among them.
His inspiration was to bring together community leaders from the places most directly affected by nuclear weapons production and testing. The demand for information about what the weapons made in the name of national security were doing to the land, water and people was simple enough. Nuclear weapons are by their nature antithetical to democracy. As (then) Deputy Secretary of Energy, W. Henson Moore, said in 1989, nuclear weapons production had been “a secret operation not subject to laws…no one was to know what was going on….[T]he way we’ve [the government and its contractors] operated these plants in the past…was: This is our business, it’s national security, everybody else butt out.” (as quoted in the Washington Post, 17 June 1989).
The notion that the public should “butt out” of activities that were laying land and water to waste, while endangering the very public the government claimed to protect was offensive to Bill and the core of activists who founded the Nuclear Safety Campaign that went on to become the Military Production Network (MPN), now known as the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability, (ANA).
Information about and accountability for the environmental and health impacts of nuclear weapons production and testing was at the center of MPN’s demands. The people who were being harmed in the name of national security had a right to know. A claim of national security was not enough.
Bill Mitchell, Sharon Carlsen, Tim Connor, Lisa Crawford, and others began to expose the chamber of nuclear weapons establishment horrors. It was the U.S. version of the glasnost that was taking hold in the Soviet Union in the Gorbachev era. Through demands for and analyses of environmental impact statements, Freedom of Information requests, and savvy outreach to Congress and the media, the Military Production Network fostered a startling public awareness: the nuclear weapons complex was, first of all, hurting the very people it was supposed to protect. Under cover of national security and the demand that everybody but the government and its contractors “butt out,” the nuclear weapons establishment had been polluting the land and rivers of patriotic stories and songs, while conducting experiments without informed consent on its own people.
But the most remarkable thing about Bill Mitchell and the Military Production Network was this: the microphone was in the hands of the leaders and activists who were from the communities where the nuclear weapons plants were located. Bill Mitchell never put himself out front. He never was the principal speaker at a press conference. He was never the spokesperson quoted in news releases. On the contrary, he was always in the background.
It would have been easy to be otherwise. After all, Bill was the strategic inspiration of the enterprise, its co-founder, and its chief fundraiser. But there was something in his nature that was profoundly democratic. He never thought of it as ceding control. It came naturally that Lisa Crawford, who lived near the Fernald plant in Ohio that processed half a million tons of uranium and who was directly affected through pollution of the well from which she unknowingly used water for years, was one of the people who was front and center. And so were many other community leaders and activists. Bill’s stewardship of the group consisted in the empowerment of the grassroots activists and the groups who were directly affected
Bill was at the center of creating that most unusual of organizations that has had influence in Washington. MPN’s reins were not in the hands of some central, inside-the-Beltway office. They were firmly in the hands of strong community leaders who knew their minds and developed friendship and respect that results in a most remarkable accomplishment.
I was privileged to be a part of this, with IEER providing technical analysis and support as well as technical training workshops for community leaders that become the highlight of my professional year, each year for many years. The work that Bill began was at the center of my professional life for nearly two decades. It continues to inspire me.
By the mid-1990s, under relentless pressure to justify new weapons production when it was clear that there were already too many nuclear bombs, to clean up the mess already made, to explain how human radiation experiments could have happened, to put the estimates of cancers and deaths caused by nuclear testing fallout throughout the country, most of the production facilities in the nuclear weapons complex were shut. That included the plutonium and tritium production reactors, the Hanford plutonium separation plant, the Rocky Flats plant where thousands of plutonium triggers for nuclear weapons were manufactured on an assembly line, the Fernald uranium processing plant, and many others.
The idea of accountability to the people by the nuclear weapons establishment had spread to the former Soviet Union. Grassroots collaborations between U.S. and Russian community activists were established. The Soviet nuclear test site at Semipalatinsk was closed. Nuclear testing was ended by the United States, Russia, France, Britain, and China. The United States, under pressure from ANA, made public a National Cancer Institute study on fallout that estimated that between 11,000 and 212,000 thyroid cancers would be caused by atmospheric testing in Nevada alone; those tests ended in 1962.
Not that the nuclear weapons complex gave up. Even as thousands of weapons were being declared surplus for security requirements in the early 1990s, the U.S. Department of Energy was promoting plans for a spanking new nuclear weapons complex, called Complex 21. MPN/ANA made sure it was not to be.
The legacy of that shutdown of key facilities in the nuclear weapons weapons complex, notably Rocky Flats, is of immense significance today as tensions, including nuclear tensions, rise between Russia and the United States. The Alliance for Nuclear Accountability is among the groups pointing to the folly of the proposed 30-year trillion dollar “upgrade” of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, aka the “Trillion Dollar Trainwreck”.
The work of the community activists and leaders is as important as ever, perhaps more so in the context of the climate crisis, where international cooperation to solve the problem is critical. Bill’s legacy lives on in rising demands worldwide for accountability and democracy; it has expanded to nuclear disarmament and to addressing the climate crisis without resorting to nuclear power plants.
But for me, the most important legacy of Bill’s life and work at least in the arena I know best was the humility, modesty, and fidelity to the principles of democracy with which he conducted himself when he conceived, launched and coordinated the Military Production Network. We need him sorely today. I hope we can take inspiration from the brilliant and principled way in which Bill Mitchell lived, and loved, and gave of himself.
Bob Schaeffer of Public Policy Communications, a long-time adviser to IEER and to MPN/ANA, helped with this remembrance of our mutual friend Bill.