Nuclear transport threatens Asheville—today and tomorrow

I live out in Sandy Mush — as vibrant and sensuously pleasing a place as one could dream of. From the porch of my little cabin, I can see the winter-dark ridges turning mauve as the tree buds swell, set off by the greening of the high pastures. In the woods the pink-striped spring beauties, the bloodroot and the tiny white violets are carpeting the ground; the trillium and ramps are emerging. I love this land, its wildness and its pastures; its porous, marshy, life-giving places — so fragile and so vulnerable.

But I’m worried — for Asheville, for the Southeast, for the entire planet. Asheville has become a crossroads for the transport of radioactive materials. Both Interstate 40 and Interstate 26 connect a web of nuclear-power plants and military installations: from Nuclear Fuel Services (in Erwin, Tenn.) to the Savannah River Site (in Aiken, S.C.) to other facilities in Watts Barr and Oak Ridge, Tenn. — making Buncombe County a hub for moving these deadly materials back and forth. And if a proposed $l.l billion bomb plant is built at Oak Ridge as planned, there’ll be even more such hazardous traffic.

Even now, I often see accidents — not infrequently on the bridge across the French Broad River — as I drive the winding mountain roads to town. But what happens if a container carrying nuclear materials is wrecked and breached over the river? What if more trucks spring radioactive leaks as they pass through the area, as happened last June? [See “Cake Out in the Rain,” July 7, 2004, Xpress.] What if a terrorist launches a missile at a truck or into the Y-12 National Security Complex at Oak Ridge, just across the mountains?

This isn’t the first time I’ve confronted such threats. When I lived on bucolic Muddy Creek in York County, Pa., in the early 1970s, Philadelphia Electric Co. wanted to ship spent radioactive fuel rods from the nearby Peach Bottom nuclear-power plant on a twisty rail line that even then was recognized as being vulnerable to terrorist attack. I joined forces with other concerned citizens and together, we stopped this risky scheme. I tramped the length of York County along the railroad line collecting petition signatures. Years later, after the accident at Three Mile Island had made the prospect of a core meltdown all too real, I fled to my parents’ land in Sandy Mush. My sister and her Sandy Mush neighbors had faced a similar threat back in the ’80s, when that area was chosen as a potential site for a high-level radioactive waste dump. But they, too, had fought successfully to fend off a nuclear threat.

I guess you could say I have a history of lobbying with my feet. I grew up in a Quaker environment — a dairy farm in Chester County, Pa. — and witnessing for peace was part of how I learned to relate to the world around me. Last May, to celebrate my 60th birthday, I did a 500-mile peace walk along the ancient pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. And for the past five years, I’ve joined a lot of folks from Asheville and beyond who accompany the Nipponzan Myohoji Buddhist monks of Atlanta on their annual peace walk to the Y-12 Complex at Oak Ridge, one of the principal facilities involved in making the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This several-week walk, which will pass through Asheville this year, culminates on or about Aug. 6 — the day Hiroshima was bombed.

But this year, I felt called to become part of something bigger still: the Stop the Bombs Interfaith Pilgrimage commemorating the 60th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima. The walk began with a March 12 vigil at the Y-12 plant, and — 780 miles later — it will arrive in New York for a May 1 rally. The next day, folks from all over the world will walk to the United Nations headquarters, where the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty is up for review.

On March 14 — a warm, sunny day — I drove over the mountain and caught up with the 30 or so walkers south of Knoxville. They were easy to spot, with colorful peace banners flying and the monks drumming and chanting the Japanese Buddhist mantra NA MU MYO HO REN GE KYO. That day, I met people from Australia, Japan and Austria, as well as the U.S.; I was the only one from North Carolina.

During the first week, we stayed in churches and city halls (including the doublewide that serves as the seat of local government in Blaine, Tenn.!). I was impressed by the friendliness and interest shown us by so many folks. At most stops, the local community generously gave us supper, and passersby often brought us bottled water, chocolate and other donations. That week, the pilgrimage covered 114 miles, passing through cities, villages and farmland.

The peace walk is a collaborative effort involving a number of groups: the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance, FootPrints for Peace, the Nipponzan Myohoji Buddhist order, the Interfaith Peace Pilgrimage and the Mayors for Peace Campaign (representing 611 member cities in 109 countries and regions). The latter project got me thinking about our own local leaders.

Last August, these mayors declared the period from Aug. 6, 2004, to Aug. 9, 2005, a year of remembrance and action for a nuclear-free world. And when the peace pilgrimage reached Lynchburg, Va., the mayor met with the walkers and pledged to join the Mayors for Peace Campaign. So how about Asheville? I’m asking all concerned city residents to urge Mayor Worley and the City Council to sign on today.

As I write this, I’m preparing to rejoin the walk in Frederick, Md., where as a teenager I joined a silent vigil to protest the production of biological and chemical weapons at Fort Detrick. We’ll continue past Three Mile Island and on to New York City. And we’ll walk as a community of concerned citizens of the Earth, on hard pavement, splashed by rain, burned by the sun, greeted warmly (and sometimes confronted angrily) — but always with the desire to see the nuclear arms race ended.

Not everyone can drop their day-to-day responsibilities and take this kind of symbolic action. But I urge the residents of Buncombe, Haywood and Madison counties to pay attention to the threat posed by all the nuclear shipments passing through Western North Carolina and to let your local, state and federal officials know that we will not be passive bystanders as our communities, our children and our posterity are put in needless jeopardy.

[Sandy Mush resident Ray Hearne will give an 8 p.m. talk at the Indigenous Teahouse in Asheville on Saturday, May 7, in connection with an exhibit of photos from her 500-mile peace pilgrimage in Spain.]

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