The Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine USS Henry M. Jackson transits past the Olympic Mountains. Credit: Lt. Ed Early/U.S. Pacific Fleet
The ad pierces your consciousness and catches you by surprise. Plastered on the side of King County Metro buses, it hurls you momentarily back in time, to a time when nuclear weapons were an imminent threat to our survival. Or did the era never end?
The ad — sponsored by activists from the Poulsbo-based Ground Zero Center for Nonviolent Action — reads: “20 miles west of Seattle is the largest concentration of deployed nuclear weapons in the U.S.”
Behind this text is a map, depicting the proximity of Seattle to Naval Base Kitsap, located on the eastern shore of Hood Canal. The base is home port for eight of the U.S. Navy’s fourteen Trident ballistic missile submarines and an underground nuclear weapons storage complex. Together they’re believed to store more than 1,300 nuclear warheads, according to Hans Kristensen, Director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists.
This is arguably the biggest single concentration of nuclear warheads not only in the U.S., but in the world.
King County Metro was initially hesitant to run the ad, until Kristensen confirmed its accuracy. The combined explosive power contained in the base is equivalent to more than 14,000 Hiroshima bombs, he says.
But the most surprising thing to him about the underground nuclear weapons storage complex — known as the Strategic Weapons Facility Pacific (SWF-PAC), and completed in 2012 — is the extent to which a $294 million bunker has largely escaped public debate, except for a few industry-related articles.
The small non-profit behind the ad shares a land border with the naval base. It launched when Robert Aldridge, an engineer for Lockheed Martin — the arms manufacturer with a plant on the base — quit his job directing development of Trident ballistic missiles at the base, when he saw they could be used in a preemptive first strike against the Soviet Union.
According to Glen Milner, an active member of the Center, Aldridge then contacted two peace activists in the area — Catholic theologian Jim Douglas and his wife Shelley — and the Ground Zero Center for Nonviolent Action was formed.
For a time, Ground Zero was successful in engaging the public. When the first Trident warship arrived in Hood Canal in 1982, several thousand protesters gathered on shore and a small flotilla of boats to meet it. The U.S. Coast Guard kept them at bay by severing outboard gas lines and threatening to use fire-hoses.
When nuclear warheads began to arrive at Naval Base Kitsap on rail cars from a Pantex assembly plant in north Texas, momentum in the anti-nuclear movement began to build. The rail cars were initially white, says Milner. As a result, the “white trains” became a focal point not only for anti-nuclear weapons protesters in Washington but around the country. The trains were met by protesters on their way to Bangor. After this, the Department of Energy stopped shipping warheads by train and began moving them via unmarked trucks and trailers.
The enormous amount of nuclear weaponry in Seattle’s backyard is no secret to industry analysts, military contractors, or public officials. But the general public is less informed, say those who initiated Ground Zero’s bus campaign. They describe the goals of the advertisements as two-fold: to lift the veil of secrecy surrounding the naval base, and to re-ignite public debate about nuclear weapons in the U.S. arsenal.
“This is a wake up call,” says Ground Zero’s Leonard Eiger. “Why do these nuclear weapons exist 70 years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Why do we continue to not only deploy them but why are we maintaining them and planning for a new fleet that could run over $100 billion? What are the economic, political and social costs?”
The Washington Military Alliance — a group formally established in 2014 by Governor Jay Inslee, which advocates for military investment in the state — notes that Naval Base Kitsap is a driving economic force in the region. 56 percent of all military revenue coming into the state relies on the U.S. Navy, says Kristine Reeves, spokesperson for the Alliance.
“Our focus is how do we partner at the state level to ensure that this $13 billion dollar industry, representing over three percent of our GDP, is strategic about investments being made,” says Reeves. “We’re not necessarily interested in whether nuclear weapons are good or bad. What we are interested in is furthering the great partnership with the U.S. Navy from a public-private perspective, economic perspective and environmental.”
Naval Base Kitsap is the third-largest Navy base in the U.S., one of only two strategic nuclear weapons facilities, and is the Navy’s largest fuel depot.
Over 1900 companies do business on behalf of the Department of Defense, says Reeves. “And they’re not just building things that go boom,” she says. “These are some of the world’s best innovators building things for the generation of tomorrow.”
The economics of Naval Base Kitsap’s nuclear armory may be changing, as the U.S. Navy is currently proposing a new fleet of ballistic missile submarines. Currently the base houses over half of the submarines capable of carrying Trident ballistic missiles, which can deliver a nuclear payload.
The U.S. Navy has presented a plan to spend over a trillion dollars during the next 30 years upgrading and maintaining the entire triad of U.S. based nuclear weapons, according to Martin Fleck of Physicians for Social Responsibility, a group that advocates for nuclear disarmament. This includes over $100 billion to replace the base’s nuclear submarines.
The plan has yet to be approved by the Obama administration.
“We and our allies,” says Fleck, “are arguing for sanity with nuclear weapons given that we have enough already to end the world several times over. Why on earth would we invest another trillion dollars in them at this late date?”
Nuclear weapons contractors in the United States brought in $334 billion in government contracts between 2012 and 2014, according to research conducted by Physicians for Social Responsibility.
Representative Adam Smith, ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, has questioned the nuclear spending currently being proposed. Smith joined 159 other members of the House of Representatives to support an amendment to the House Defense Appropriations bill, which would have slashed funding for a nuclear cruise missile.
Both Lockheed Martin and Boeing Corporation weighed in to oppose the amendment, and it was defeated along partisan lines. But the vote, says PSR’s Fleck, proved that Congress is far from united over the government’s trillion dollar nuclear weapons plan. Smith’s later penned an op-ed for Foreign Policy magazine, titled “America Already Has More Than Enough Nuclear Missiles.”
Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists disputes whether a new nuclear arms race is underway, but admits there’s been a resurgence in the adversarial relationship between the United States and Russia. As a result, “nuclear weapons are gradually becoming more explicit. For now, this is fueling modernization of arsenals and adjustments of operations and strategies.”
Nine nations, including China and North Korea, are engaged in building or modernizing their nuclear arsenal. In the face of this, those behind Ground Zero’s bus ad say it’s time to “demilitarize diplomacy.”
“It’s time to step back from building another generation of nuclear weapons,” says Eiger. “The doctrine came out of the Cold War but it still exists. It’s a dangerous road to travel.”