Synthesis/Regeneration 10   (Spring 1996)

Touring with the Earth and Sky Women's Peace Caravan's
Museum to End the Nuclear Age

Hot Spots on the Road

by Susan Lee, Feminists for a Compassionate Society, Austin Greens

A Laguna Pueblo woman in her early fifties, who worked unprotected for eight years in the world's largest open-pit uranium mine and had a lymphoma-caused tumor removed from her right breast.

A 38-year-old Mexican-American architect forced by job scarcity to work six days a week, 16 hours a day for the electrical division of the nuclear power plant near Houston, who now suffers a rare and probably fatal form of cancerous abdominal tumor. His wife, who had four miscarriages in the five years he worked at the nuke.

A single mother on the Mescalero reservation, who lost her home and her job directing the day care center due to her opposition to the nuclear utility dump the chief wants. An older tribal leader, who gave up her career out of state to come home and lead the opposition to the dump after a warning vision of the future. They were with us when we were ordered off the reservation by the chief.

A breast cancer activist who believes her tumor was caused by proximity to a nuclear power plant on the East Coast.

A rancher who with his mother owns the general store in Sierra Blanca, in west Texas, designated site for a state nuclear waste dump, who has drained his family funds to lobby personally in Austin, Vermont, Maine and DC against the dump and the compact that would bring northeastern nuclear waste over the interstates to the beautiful high desert area just north of the Rio Grande.

A 60-ish Los Alamos physicist at the Trinity site, whose wife had a recent scare with breast cancer, but who believes nuclear weapons are a crucial part of our defense and our economy. Only our exhibits on breast cancer met his approval. A Navajo water engineer fighting a uranium mine proposed for northwestern New Mexico which threatens the drinking water supplies of his community, Crownpoint, and seven other Navajo towns. A state legislator who supports his struggle.

A young Santa Fe researcher discussing a radioactive laundry in her city which legally emits much more radiation than the nearby weapons lab. Her famous uncle attributed his early cancer death to radiation exposure from his work at the Los Alamos Nuclear Weapons Laboratory (LANL).

Children dedicating the peace sculpture they had conceived and funded as their gesture to end the Cold War, rejected by Los Alamos but received with fanfare by their native city, Albuquerque, at its Fine Arts Museum.

The Caravan Begins

These are a few of the people we encountered during the first two months of touring with the Earth and Sky Women's Peace Caravan to End the Nuclear Age, a 31-foot mobile museum with a focus on the health effects of radiation. Here's how the caravan came to be....

In the summer of 1994, Genevieve Vaughan, president and funder of the Texas-based Foundation for a Compassionate Society; Ellen Diederich, German peace activist and veteran of several European and US women's peace caravans; several other Foundation organizers and myself, an artist-activist hired by the Foundation to research the health effects of nuclear facilities in Texas, began to conceptualize a women's caravan for the summer of 1995 calling for an end to the nuclear age and for demilitarization.

The approach of the fourth Non-Governmental Organizations Forum on Women as well as several fiftieth anniversary atomic dates coming up promised public and media attention. (Earlier in 1994, the Foundation had put on a national conference on Breast Cancer and Ionizing Radiation, which served to bring new attention to the proposed west Texas dump and allow women interested in the issues to find each other. Both the Conference and the Caravan were financed by Vaughan as manifestations of her vision of a gift economy based on nurturing values rooted in women's experience in creating and sustaining life.)

Exhibits cover the history and legacy of the nuclear age, from uranium mining and processing, nuclear power reactors, and bomb-making/testing, to transport and waste management, with hands-on experience in radiation monitoring.

By mid-June of 1995, the caravan had materialized into a bright blue converted RV museum with an original interior design, fitted out with solar panels to run lights, fans, a computer-based radiation monitor, a high-8 video camera and a TV-VCR. The purpose of the museum? To alert communities to the health and environmental hazards of radiation and the protective actions citizens can take, and tape video messages for the women's conference in China. Exhibits cover the history and legacy of the nuclear age, from uranium mining and processing, nuclear power reactors, and bomb-making/testing, to transport and waste management, with hands-on experience in radiation monitoring.

The Caravan debuted at a fundraiser for the Sierra Blanca Legal Defense Fund, then was off to the Texas-Mexican border, passing through South Texas' uranium mining district on the way. We had learned that the French electric utility COGEMA had applied for a permit to renew uranium mining in the region, which is peppered with the aquifer-polluting mines located in old gas and oil drill holes. The buyer? Japan, with its 49 nuclear power reactors and no uranium source. (A 1994 article in London's Sunday Times cited by British intelligence believed Japan "has the expertise" to build nuclear bombs "very quickly" if they hadn't already.)

In the museum, captioned photographs from photographer Sharon Stewart's Toxic Tour of Texas told of leaking pipes, contaminated wells, vast mill tailings ponds and piles, miscarriages, birth defects and increased cancer rates in the area.

My colleague Patti Salas, a young activist and midwife, conducted the Spanish-language interviews for Valley and Mexican media and helped translate the exhibit for Mexico. Our initial driver and speaker was a former nuclear power plant security guard, who has filed claims that she was deliberately given a high dose of radiation (105 rems in a few minutes) to shut off her complaints about the safety hazard caused by persistent sexual harassment and discrimination during training. Our visit was coordinated by the Foundation's valley staff and Matamoros, Mexico ecologists celebrating a new space. Breakdowns and Breakthroughs

A hot, mechanically-troubled drive led us north to Bay City, a company town dominated by the nearby South Texas [Nuclear] Project (STNP), 2500 megawats of expense and trouble, where we'd been painfully and slowly organizing for two years. We met up with several local and Austin allies for a press appointment in front of the courthouse in our museum, a billboard on wheels linking breast cancer and nuclear power plants in a colorful exterior image.

Joining us for the day were an injured STNP worker: a 38-year old Hispanic, otherwise healthy, non-smoking father of four, whose rare and radiation-related cancerous stomach tumor imminently threatens his life; his wife, a health care provider; former Navy commander Don Darling, a dedicated anti-nuclear campaigner after he became convinced that his child's birth defect was due to his reactor radiation exposure, and People Preventing a Texas Chernobyl's citizen lawyer Rodney Doerscher, who intervened in a recent Public Utility Commission case against STNP managing partner Houston Lighting and Power. An all-afternoon interview with a local reporter resulted in three front page stories on subsequent days, a major victory in a town where no one had dared to breathe criticism of the plant for years. Only two strangers, a mother and child, dared enter our museum, but they stayed a long while, and left aware.

Then a mis-diagnosed broken clutch fan cost us an important and well-organized public meeting in Oklahoma City. We drove all night running the heater, boiling the radiator over whenever we had to stop in order to get to Norman, Oklahoma for the opening of a four day National Women's Studies Conference, where we got good press and good response from conference attenders, and where we proposed a resolution for an end to the nuclear age.

We also met a young girl who'd seen through the state's nuclear propaganda tour directed at students there; parents who urged us to return and offer tours to students to counter the pro-nuke propanda, and a woman whose shaven head revealed huge surgery scars for brain tumors.

After a week off to try to make peace with bookkeepers and change crews (I had acquired Tashubi, a 17-year-old experienced anti-nuclear ally, and a young Corpus Christi mechanic and his girlfriend from our stay in their town south of Bay City), we hit the road for Dallas and Fort Worth, where we gave public tours and met with breast cancer activists and peace and anti-nuclear groups and the media to sound the alarm about environmentally-caused breast and other cancers, Down's syndrome, and the emissions from the Comanche Peak reactors 35 miles southwest of Fort Worth and the hazards of radioactive waste traffic coming in from Maine and Vermont and probably other states if the radioactive waste Compact Bill passed Congress.

A new twist on the public radiation dangers was the testimony of a ranchwoman in the vicinity of the huge unregulated toxics-burning cement kiln complex in Midlothian, half-hour or so east of the nuke, who got a tip from a worker that the strontium-90 in her neighbors' and family's hair comes from the burning of radioactive waste water from one of the Texas nukes in the kilns. Again we got excellent coverage from print and electronic media during our several days stay. Another breakdown in the second vehicle of the caravan cost us six hours and some backtracking in the middle of the night on our way to Abilene. Following the Dump Trail

Next we followed the waste trail between Comanche Peak and Sierra Blanca, giving media conferences in Abilene and at a giant truck stop between Midland and Odessa. Our message: the radiation hazards to truckers and other drivers and residents along I-20 if Sierra Blanca, Andrews County or the Mescalero Reservation become nuclear dump sites. Our museum includes a photograph by west coast artist/activist Rachel Johnson. Its caption explains that the truck's load set off Rachel's geiger counter as it passed her on its way to a "low-level" dump in Beatty, Nevada.

Turning on to I-10, we met public and media in front of the courthouse in Pecos, after a few hours in a cool oasis called Balmorhea Springs, where desert divers can see 30 feet down to catfish, turtles and rocks below. We're fighting to protect our water; it seems important to honor it by experiencing its beauty and healing qualities.

In Sierra Blanca, a 24-hour stay brought us visits from the staff of the state agency responsible for trying to dump on the mainly low-income, Mexican-American community, as well as from rancher and businessman Bill Guerra Addington, heart of the resistance. We also met a young girl who'd seen through the state's nuclear propaganda tour directed at students there; parents who urged us to return and offer tours to students to counter the pro-nuke propanda, and a woman whose shaven head revealed huge surgery scars for brain tumors. Her residential history included prox-imity to Sandia nuclear weapons lab in Albuquerque, Las Cruces (where my Rad-Alert geiger counter read twice normal background level) and Three Mile Island, as well as East Austin diesel tanks.

In El Paso sister-city Juarez, people crowded into the museum in the main square to sign petitions against the Sierra Blanca dump and nuclear weapons testing. A media conference on Sierra Blanca organized by the effective US-Mexican group, Alliance for the Rio Bravo (Rio Grande) was very well-attended, and that night, a sweat led by an indigenous couple in El Paso helped to reverse the physical and emotional stresses of the tour.

New Mexico Tour

Another successful media conference in El Paso primed us for the trip north to the White Sands Missile Range for the 50th anniversary of the test of the plutonium bomb dropped on Nagasaki on July 16. We linked up with anti-nuclear people gathering in the desert nearby the night before, listened to stories around a campfire, observed the silent religious vigil, and spent the night in the road near the guard gate into the site, debating whether to use the museum to block the entrance, as a friend from Three Mile Island urged. Ultimately I decided against it, as we had commitments with other communities afterwards. The experience of being at ground zero the next morning and the many thoughtful visitors to the museum in the parking lot at the site and national media exposure affirmed this decision. One of the visitors was Lou Zeller, an organizer who'd driven a truck hauling a 25-foot long mock radioactive waste cask from North Carolina to be at Trinity and to join up with us for a tour organized by the All People's Coalition of New Mexico.

During the next weeks, we attracted a lot of attention on the roads and held media conferences and opened the museum to the public in Las Cruces, Carlsbad (where local activists showed us sinkholes near the supposedly stable salt formations of the Waste Isolation Pilot Project [WIPP], which is slated to receive nuclear waste within the decade), Roswell, Ruidosa, the Mescalero Apache reservation, Albuquerque (home of Sandia weapons lab), Santa Fe (downwind of Los Alamos in the summer), Taos, Grants, Crownpoint, Gallup (Navajo area threatend by a new uranium mine), Laguna Pueblo (old Jackpile uranium mine) and Belen (railway crossroads which could see much hot action if Yucca Mountain or WIPP opens).

In New Mexico as well as in Texas, it seemed often as if the main value of the caravan, besides the fine media response, which usually quoted local organizers as well as us nomads, was in the solidarity we offered to local resistance, the shoring up of spirits lent by the striking physical presence of the caravan. And for us, the gathering of information and inspiration of local strategies and creative resistance.

In Albuquerque, we linked with the conference of The Greens/Green Party USA, exchanging information at a workshop and a dinner at the Peace and Justice Center. There, the seeds for nuclear issues of Synthesis/Regeneration were planted.

In August, the caravan was present at the dedication of the first US Children's Peace Statue at the Albuquerque Museum of Fine Arts, and the annual Peace Camp (Beyond the Bomb was the 1995 theme) in Amarillo, Texas. Our mission garnered television coverage at a Hiroshima memorial ceremony attended by a survivor of that bombing who authographed copies of her 1945 journal (Fumiko's Diary) in our museum. On August 6, we left the Peace Farm near the Pantex nuclear weapons plant where the bombs are now disassembled, in a caravan of many activists heading for the gates of Pantex and a moving ceremony featuring religious leaders and two women (one from Hiroshima, one from Dallas) who were 14 and naively patriotic on that fatal day 50 years ago, now united in their zeal to demilitarize all nations.

Bailout, Beijing and Beyond

Finally, I bailed out for relief from burnout, and to contemplate lessons learned on the trip. More lead time and space between stops to maximize local impacts. More fun and time to experience the environment we're trying to save and to allow for mechanical problems to be resolved without panic and all-night drives. So while I reflected and played and prepared for China, my colleagues drove the museum to the annual Michigan Women's Music Festival in August, where hundreds of women signed petitions for a nuclear test ban and many told personal tragedies related to breast cancer.

In 1996, we'll be on the road again. If you'd like to host us in your area, get in touch soon: Susan Lee, 227 Congress #100, Austin TX 78701 (512-494-0200).

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