In the weeks following President Trump’s heralded summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un, media have endlessly dissected the meeting and buzzed about each subsequent development, from the significant (North Korea upgrading nuclear reactors), to the trivial (Mike Pompeo presenting Kim with a CD of Elton John’s “Rocket Man”), on what appears to be a very long road ostensibly heading toward a nuclear agreement.
Largely missing from the conversation are the voices of communities that are impacted by nuclear energy and militarization. But last month, some of those communities held a summit of their own in Atlanta. Hosted by Georgia WAND, an organization that has worked to stop the expansion of nuclear power in Georgia, the event convened organizers from nuclear-impacted communities in Georgia and New Mexico, as well as Christine Ahn, who has advocated for the inclusion of women in peace talks between North and South Korea and the U.S. as the founder of Women Cross DMZ.
Ahn began a panel discussion by drawing connections between their respective struggles and the many problems that social movements are currently addressing.
“We're dealing with issues about people’s justice and equality,” she said.
“Whether it's about transgender rights, immigration, historic communities of color, economic justice, environmental justice, bringing that all together and then connecting domestic and foreign policy...We need to define what security means on our terms, not in terms of this white, patriarchal, militaristic vision of security."
Among the panelists were Natalie Herrington, an educator and community organizer from Burke County, Georgia, where The Alvin W. Vogtle Electric Generating Plant, also known as Plant Vogtle, has contributed to environmental and public health crises in Black communities. There was Denice Traina from Augusta, Georgia (near Burke County) who works as a health professional and activist to address damage caused by the Savannah River Site, a decommissioned nuclear facility. And Denise Brown joined them from Albuquerque, where she works with the Nuclear Issues Study Group New Mexico and Diné No Nukes to advocate for the rights of indigenous communities impacted by uranium mining and nuclear waste.
“We need to define what security means on our terms, not in terms of this white, patriarchal, militaristic vision of security."
Scalawag sat down with Herrington and Brown after the panel to talk about their work in more detail:
Gabrielle Hernández: Natalie, one of the things you mentioned during the panel is that getting people in Burke County to rally around this issue can be tough, especially because a lot of people in the community work with Southern Company [which owns Plant Vogtle]. How do you go about building grassroots networks at home?
Natalie Herrington: I believe building relationships is key not only to movements, but just to help people and empower them, educating them. Even if it’s just one person at a time, that’s one additional person you have informed and empowered. I go to a lot of community events, even if it’s something I’m not sponsoring. I’m always accessible, to the point where I have to turn my cell phone to silent because if I hear it, I’m gonna look at it.
It is a challenge, but to be honest, if people know that I’m involved, even if they don’t come, they’re going to ask me about it [radiation monitoring, public hearings related to Plant Vogtle, and other developments concerning the nuclear facility]. Maybe they don’t show up, but I’ll always have an opportunity to educate them about what happened. I don’t try to harp on the negative stuff––I never say “problem,” I always say “concern,” because language is very important to me, and I’m always looking for opportunities to educate people.
“I believe building relationships is key not only to movements, but just to help people and empower them, educating them.”
People know me as the resource person in Burke County. If they want to know something, they come to me, and if I don’t know, I find out.
GH: Denise, what connections do you see between your work in New Mexico and what’s happening at places like Plant Vogtle?
Denise Brown: Recently we’ve been doing this issue called CIS, Consolidated Interim Storage. Holtec International, which is an international company that creates dry cask storage for spent fuel [radioactive nuclear waste], they actually store the spent fuel at Plant Vogtle. They work with the Energy Alliance, which is this group based in New Mexico, and they’re teaming up together and saying “this is a spot in New Mexico that we want to build a temporary facility where we want to store all the waste from all the nuclear reactor facilities, and if you transport it here, we’ll hold it.” That’s something we’ve been really invested in preventing because as I mentioned earlier, New Mexico is where this all started [The first U.S. nuclear bomb tests for the Manhattan Project were conducted in Alamogordo, New Mexico]. We have uranium mining, and then we have laboratories like Los Alamos National Labs and all these pro-nuclear entities within our state. A lot of people have lived through those struggles and those issues, and they are saying no more. We’re saying no more, we don’t want this.
I was recently at the Albuquerque public [Nuclear Regulatory Commission] meeting. They’ve been hosting these public meetings to get public input for their environmental impact statement [on the proposed nuclear waste storage facility]. We participate in all of them. At the Albuquerque one in particular, a rhetoric developed out of that meeting that said “reactor communities wanted that reactor facility, so they should keep [the waste],” and that’s not the case. That’s not the case at Plant Vogtle, where the Black community was pretty much powerless to do anything about that, and this big old corporation came out and said we’re going to build it. I was really struggling––I was like ‘this is not the rhetoric we want to produce.’
GH: Natalie, how do you connect the work you’re doing in Burke County to the work other people are doing, both across the South and also internationally in places like North Korea?
NH: One of the ways we connect is by saying yes when we’re asked to be on a panel to represent Burke County, because you never know who you’re going to be on a panel with until those introductions are made. You never know who’s going to be in the room. They may be able to help you and you also may be able to help them.
There’s a lot of experience and knowledge in Burke County, but again, there’s a gap. Because we are known for being the resource keepers, we’re trying to bridge that gap so that young people who know what we have experience and knowledge of so that they’re able to teach that and be empowered, and we can go out and mobilize.
GH: What need do you see for building these kinds of connections across communities?
DB: You can’t just look at the nuclear industry from just one aspect. You can’t just focus in on uranium mining or on reactors, it’s all a cycle and so everyone is affected by it. It starts at uranium mining, and then it’s shipped to a facility that produces energy, and then we get the waste.
We need to connect and develop a relationship between reactor communities and communities that will possibly store the waste. We both know that this is something that we don’t want as people, as communities that have been affected by this, but are imposed on to take care of this stuff.
GH: What issues do you see here on the horizon?
DB: There is a bill, H.R. 3053, it’s actually nuclear waste policy that will allow transportation of nuclear waste. It passed the House, so the Senate needs to go over it, and they’re not entirely sure what’s going to happen with that bill, if it’s just going to be immediately passed through or if the Senate will develop its own. Worst case scenario, it’s going to go to Trump, and most likely he’s going to sign it. That’s going to jeopardize a bunch of communities who, first of all, didn’t consent to this. I think there’s a lot of rhetoric saying this is going to be Armageddon 2.0. That’s really scary because there are silos around the country that store that material, and New Mexico is one of them. We’re also a state that’s funded by the federal government to produce nuclear weapons.
It’s not just a U.S. problem, its a global thing. If we’re basing nuclear issues in regards to war and militarism, that’s a huge issue because Trump’s administration is enacting war crimes in Syria and other places.
"You can’t just focus in on uranium mining or on reactors, it’s all a cycle and so everyone is affected by it. It starts at uranium mining, and then it’s shipped to a facility that produces energy, and then we get the waste. We need to connect and develop a relationship between reactor communities and communities that will possibly store the waste."
I think it’s great what Christine’s doing with Korea, she’s really finding those connections internationally. Sometimes we get so narrow-minded and focused on the U.S. that we don’t include other places who have been affected by the nuclear industry, like all of the indigenous people who on their lands have been affected by uranium mining. There’s a bunch of other international building we have to do. That’s going to be difficult because we don’t live in the same place or speak the same language or come from the same cultural mindset, but we have to overcome that to make this a better place for all of us.