America’s Military-Industrial Oligarchy vs. Our Small Towns
Two small-town Cold War facilities—one in Maine, another in South Carolina—each attempted to chart a peacetime future. Why did one succeed and the other fail so drastically?
Editor’s Note: On December 15, 2021, nearly four months after America ended its war in Afghanistan, the U.S. Congress voted for the largest military budget in U.S. history. The total amount—$768 billion, half of the country’s discretionary budget—was actually $25 billion more than the Pentagon itself had even requested.
Among the many extras bought with those billions are 12 more “Super Hornet” fighter planes (made by Boeing) than the Administration had asked for; five more F-15EX jets (also made by Boeing) than were requested; 85 additional F-35 fighter planes (made by Lockheed Martin); and 13 new battleships, nearly twice what the Pentagon had asked for.
Quite apart from (and well before) the current tensions with Russia over Ukraine, there have been numerous reasons why, when the U.S. already has the most well-stocked military in the world, its Congress members have gone to such lengths to pay military contractors for even more weapons. One of the main reasons is one not much discussed. When it comes to military spending, three powerful groups in Washington work together to achieve the same mutual goal: more money. The first players in this trio are Congress members, particularly those seeking to funnel military spending to their districts; second are the Defense Department officials who receive that funding, then use it to sustain or expand their budgets; and third are the ultimate recipients of this cash: military contractors, who employ more than 700 lobbyists in Washington, more than one for each member of Congress.
Given the shared financial interest among these three groups, and the uncommon leverage each one possesses, when they work in concert they are almost impossible to oppose. Over the decades, this triumvirate, often referred to in Washington circles as “the iron triangle,” has added a new layer of meaning to what’s long been known as the military-industrial complex. As the following article demonstrates, our uniquely American collection of powerbrokers has become more like a military-industrial oligarchy, employing some of the same corrupt, undemocratic mechanisms commonly seen in some of the world’s well-known oligarchies. Fortunately, as evidenced in this article, a few other avenues in the American tradition are still open, where citizens can prevail over the elites’ interests.
By TAYLOR BARNES
Before World War II, America’s weapons were largely manufactured by one of two kinds of operations: in state-owned arsenals and shipyards, or by firms that normally made consumer goods but shifted gears during wartime to give the military some surge capacity. When the war was over, these companies typically went back to selling goods on the civilian market. Because of this custom, things could get awkward when the federal government came to a major manufacturer seeking weapons.
A prime example arose in the 1950s, when the Truman Administration asked E.I. du Pont de Nemours, a chemical company from Delaware, to build a vast nuclear weapons plant in rural South Carolina. Du Pont agreed to do so, but only on the condition that it make no profit from the project.”We simply cannot be in a position of making money out of an engine of war that is as horrible as this one is likely to be,” Du Pont President Crawford H. Greenewalt told the Congress’s Joint Committee on Atomic Energy at the time.
As historian Kari Frederickson documented in the 2013 book “Cold War Dixie,” Du Pont feared it would once again be labeled a “merchant of death,” the epithet it had earned in the 1930s during a bruising Senate investigation into World War I-era profiteering, which criticized the company for excessive profits on its wartime sales of gunpowder. After an extensive public relations campaign to shed the stigma, Du Pont calculated that profiting from nuclear weapons could dampen cash-flush Americans’ desire to buy DuPont products such as nylon and cellophane.
But companies soon got over their nervousness about public perceptions. They were helped along by policymakers’ desire to use military spending to boost employment, and by the Korean War of the early 1950s, when military spending reached a post-World War II spike of 15 percent of GDP, roughly twice what it was before the Korean War. By 1961, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, in his farewell address, was famously warning the country to “guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous misplaced power exists, and will persist.”
Senators who voted “yes” on the record-breaking $768 billion 2022 Defense Department budget received seven times more campaign donations from military contractors than their naysaying peers.
As prescient as Eisenhower was, he had no idea of the dimensions the military-industrial complex would achieve. Stephen Semler, a data guru at the Security Policy Reform Institute, has reported that senators who voted “yes” on the record-breaking $768 billion 2022 Defense Department budget received seven times more campaign donations from military contractors than their naysaying peers. A few years earlier, in a 2018 report, the watchdog group Project on Government Oversight (POGO) found 645 instances of top military contractors hiring former military and government officials, including members of Congress and their staff, as lobbyists, board members, or executives. POGO has a name for this revolving door: “brass parachutes.” Today, companies like Lockheed Martin, the world’s largest weapons maker, and Northrop Grumman, which makes everything from bombers and drones to intercontinental ballistic missiles, receive more than 85 percent of their revenue from military contracts. So they don’t feel the need to worry about their reputation with consumers the way cellophane-selling Du Pont did.
Sometimes, executives who belong to the military-industrial complex (sometimes called the MIC by Pentagon watchers) are surprisingly candid about how they now do business. In January, 2022, Greg Hayes, CEO of missile-maker Raytheon, told investors that a drone attack on the United Arab Emirates, rising naval tensions in the South China Sea, and a conflict in Eastern Europe that would become the horrific invasion of Ukraine boded well for foreign arms sales. “I fully expect we’re going to see some benefit from it,” he said.
While the MIC has a variety of tools to influence politicians, one lever of power is uniquely potent: the promise of jobs for their constituents. But often those promises, as we will soon see, are not kept for long; and even while those jobs exist, employment in the military industry often causes enormous trouble and outsized expense along the way.
It doesn’t have to be this way. In Brunswick, Maine, a small town that was once home to a shuttered military base, the community engineered a remarkable turnaround. (More on Brunswick in a moment). But more often than not, the iron triangle that controls military contracting also controls the destinies of military-industry towns, bending the community’s needs to the triumvirate’s own interests. A prime example occurred in Aiken, S.C., the rural community where Du Pont hesitated to build a nuclear weapons plant so many decades ago.
For most of its history, Aiken was a small, South Carolina town of cotton fields, textile mills, equestrian ranges, and health retreats. Then, in 1949, a U.S. spy plane detected radiation from a weapons test over the Soviet Union, marking the end of the United States’ brief status as the only nuclear weapons state. The discovery prompted a frenzy to build new warheads, and the federal government announced that Aiken would be the site of a new H-bomb plant to do it. Tens of thousands of construction workers descended on the town, living in trailers at a time when some locals still didn’t have electricity or refrigeration.
Several small communities, including Ellenton, a farming town, and Meyers Mill, which had a largely Black population, were wiped out to make way for a 310-square-mile nuclear weapons factory called the Savannah River Plant. The operation would go on to produce 40 percent of the United States’ Cold War stock of plutonium. A wooden plaque erected to mourn Ellenton’s loss is now on display at the plant’s museum. Written in thick black ink is a doleful message: “It’s hard to understand why our town must be destroyed to make a bomb that will destroy someone else’s town that they love as much as we love ours.”
The nuclear plant put a bullseye on Aiken. In preparation for being targeted by a rival nation seeking to cripple the United States’ ability to make bombs, local children in the 1950s began practicing the duck-and-cover drills that were common in many schools at the time. In 1960, a local group called the Aiken Civil Defense Committee hired a septic tank company to dig a fallout shelter in a city park, the mound of which is still visible today.
By 1988, after Cold-War fever had cooled, all five reactors at the site were shut down; the following year, the Department of Energy announced that the plant’s mission would transition, primarily to environmental management of the site’s leftovers. These included aging tanks of toxic waste that the state government would later call the “single largest environmental threat in South Carolina.” Environmental cleanup still employs most of the 11,000 workers at the plant, now called the Savannah River Site, or the SRS. (The plant continues to maintain one nuclear weapons program, to produce tritium, a gas used to boost weapon yields.)
In 1989, the year the Berlin Wall fell, the Pentagon grew eager for more mobile, nimble security programs. It also needed to answer federal demands for more efficient spending. By this point, four decades of arms races had produced 27 million acres of military-industrial infrastructure littered across the country in the form of mothballed hangars, unused runways, and emptied weapons bunkers.
At that time, both houses of Congress were controlled by the Democratic Party. And while Democrats are often just as willing to take political contributions from military contractors, and deliver for them, their constituency includes a larger percentage of people who aren’t happy with America’s continual arms build-up. So, in order to get around individual Congress members’ reluctance to shut down bases in their states or districts (and any additional opposition from other members of the military-industrial complex), Congress set up a process called Base Realignment and Closure, or BRAC. The process required lawmakers to vote on an entire slate of closures. This put the handful of Congressmembers whose districts were affected each round in the minority, so the rest of Congress could get the job done. Five rounds of BRAC resulted in more than 350 shuttered installations (as well as many that were combined, making some bases looked closed that weren’t). By 2005, Congress refused to approve any more.
The closure process for military bases rarely included sufficient clean-up funding. So local authorities often just put up a fence and called the area a wildlife reserve.
Some of the closed bases went on to surprisingly prosperous afterlives, most emblematically the Presidio of San Francisco, built at the entrance to the city’s majestic bay. Founded in 1776 as a military outpost for Spain, and then Mexico, the Presidio’s 470 buildings have been left largely intact, reflecting every major period of U.S. military architecture, and history, since the 1850s. After the Presidio’s closure, in the mid-1990s, the federal government saved the post as a national park, giving it some innovative powers: the ability to support itself by leasing properties for cultural, commercial, and residential use.
Of course most of the remaining 4,000 military installations in the continental U.S. aren’t graced with the Presidio’s spectacular offerings, all in the midst of a major urban center. But some rural bases have fared quite well. In Alabama, for example, a former Army ammunition depot became part of a recreational complex that includes Nascar’s Talladega Superspeedway; and in central Louisiana, an Air Force base was turned into an industrial airpark.
Unfortunately, BRAC success stories in rural America are not particularly common. Michael Touchton, a political scientist and co-author of “Salvaging Community: How American Cities Rebuild Closed Military Bases,” told me that many small towns have bleak afterlives once their bases shutter. The Chase Field Naval Air Station in southern Texas became a prison complex, Fort Wingate in New Mexico is now a missile-testing field, and the Newport Chemical Depot in Indiana, once used to manufacture TNT and nerve agents, became an industrial park that, a decade after its closure, had barely recovered a fifth of its previous number of civilian jobs. Not surprisingly, the closure process rarely included sufficient clean-up funding. So, Touchton told me, local authorities often just put up a fence and called the area a wildlife reserve.
In 2008, two decades after the Savannah River Site reactors were shuttered, a man named Pete LaBerge relocated to Aiken from Pennsylvania. Laid-back and lanky, LaBerge had an extensive history of political engagement, dating back to his days as a rather unusual long-haired leftist. His father (Walter LaBerge) was a World War II veteran and physicist who served in several high-ranking Defense Department positions, including Under Secretary of the Army during the Carter administration. The elder LaBerge later left government to work for Lockheed.
When the younger LaBerge and his wife bought a small farm about three miles from the SRS, he hadn’t thought much about the Savannah River Site—except for when a snarky friend said, “you’re moving down near that Superfund cleanup site!” But it wasn’t long before he started seeing signs that he was deep in company-town territory. There were photos in the local newspaper showing the plant’s major contractor, Savannah River Nuclear Solutions, presenting oversized checks to the United Way. In a darker sign, he also noticed the local TV station occasionally ran alarming ads from law firms calling on former nuclear workers to make compensation claims for cancer.
To get to know the town, LaBerge boarded a bus tour that took him to the grounds of the sprawling nuclear facility. Inside what he’d thought was a Cold War plant of yesteryear, he saw earthmovers maneuvering around a massive construction project that he guessed was the size of ten football fields.
The dirt mounds were created by a landmark arms control agreement, in 2000, between Moscow and Washington. That agreement committed each side to disposing of 34 tons of weapons-grade plutonium. They would do so by turning the plutonium into fuel called mixed oxide, or MOX, usable in civilian nuclear power plants. The Bush administration, in announcing the MOX plant in 2002—the first of its kind in the United States—called it an “affordable” technology. It also said the plant would cost $3.8 billion to construct over 20 years.
U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham became one of the biggest boosters of the MOX plant, which was supposed to turn plutonium into fuel for nuclear power plants. His ardent support soon earned him the nickname “Mr. MOX” among locals.
On the political left, some disarmament advocates saw MOX as a swords into plowshares opportunity. “At the time, we were so excited to be reducing nuclear arsenals,” said Dr. Sharon Weiner, a former White House nuclear staffer. “Think about it: Your former adversary—that you pointed nuclear weapons at—was going to send you material from dismantled nuclear weapons and you were going to turn on a light bulb with it.”
There were early skeptics, but they gained little traction. Republican Congressman David Hobson, a self-described fiscal conservative from Ohio, initially lobbied against MOX, calling it the “the biggest, baddest earmark of all time.” Hobson soon quieted his opposition, later explaining his reasoning in a 2016 essay for the Project on Government Oversight. Republican colleagues told him, he wrote, that scrapping MOX would hurt Gov. Mark Sanford’s reelection bid.
Meanwhile, parties with a financial stake in the project hired influential lobbyists and donated to key lawmakers, as documented in a 2013 article by two reporters for the Center for Public Integrity. Right-wing firebrand Sen. Lindsey Graham became one of its biggest boosters, earning the nickname “Mr. MOX” among locals.
As many expected, the MOX project soon got into trouble. In 2008, barely a year after construction had begun, Duke Energy, North Carolina’s primary power provider, let its contract for MOX fuel lapse, and in the following years, no other power suppliers contracted to buy the fuel. For more than a decade, cheaper alternatives for getting rid of plutonium had existed, such as vitrification, which turned plutonium into glass. Looking back on the debacle, Weiner said MOX’s commercial viability was always a “crapshoot.”
As the MOX project moved forward, cracks—real ones—began to appear. A whistleblower revealed that rebar, sold by a contractor as nuclear-grade and able to withstand an earthquake, had snapped under the weight of a workman’s hammer. The Department of Justice sued the main MOX contractor, CB&I AREVA MOX Services, and a subcontractor for claiming reimbursement for construction supplies that did not exist.
A senior employee at the subcontractor pleaded guilty to conspiring to commit theft of government funds. Watchdog groups discovered alarming safety lapses at the site. In one case, a contractor was exempted from the requirement that all nuclear material on the site must be located within 72 hours. The contractor instead estimated that task would take 180 days.
Approximately $5.4 billion was sunk into the MOX plant over a period of 11 years, without it ever powering a single light bulb.
Tom Clements, the director of a local watchdog group, SRS Watch, began to get calls from MOX workers exasperated with shoddy construction. In 2017, Clements examined monthly cost, schedule and variance reports prepared by CB&I Areva MOX Services that he obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. Combing through the documents, he found multiple references to “rework” needed at the site, such as improperly installed pipes, ledger plates, and HVAC systems. “They would just slap stuff up to get paid,” he said. “And then it would have to all get ripped out.”
Over the years, the price tag on the project ballooned by the billions, and the timeline to complete it by decades. In 2013, the Department of Energy (DOE) told Congress that it planned to “slow down the MOX project” as it assessed “alternative plutonium disposition strategies.” A year later, the Government Accountability Office reported that the cost of critical system components had averaged 60 percent higher than originally estimated. That same year, DOE concluded that MOX was “not viable within available resources.”
All along, starting in 2011, Congress had been signaling its patience was up, cutting funds allocated to MOX in each year’s budget. But rather than pull the plug then, Congress still appropriated nearly $2 billion for the project for six more years. Finally, in 2018, the project’s approximately 1,800 workers started to get pink slips. Graham and three other Republican lawmakers from South Carolina denounced the MOX cancellation, calling the project “one of the most important nonproliferation programs in the history of the world.” But DOE said that “national security missions” needed to be accomplished “at a more reasonable cost to the taxpayer.”
By that time, about $5.4 billion had been sunk into the MOX construction over a period of about 11 years. Calculated in proportion to job creation, this meant that each worker’s job had cost approximately $3 million to create, or around $270,000 a year. And it could have gotten worse. The DOE later admitted the plant would not have been ready until 2048, by which time it would have cost $17 billion to finish—nearly five times DOE’s initial promise.
Some local supporters directed their ire at the man they had expected to keep the plant alive, “Mr. MOX,” or, Sen. Graham. “I helped put you in office for many years. No more,” one woman who identified herself as a former MOX employee wrote on Twitter.
But on May 10, 2018, the exact same day the DOE scrapped the MOX project, it announced that it had a substitute lined up for the SRS. It recommended that the partially constructed plant be repurposed to produce scores of “plutonium pits.” These are not holes in the ground for nuclear disposal; they are bowling-ball sized orbs that form the core of nuclear weapons. In a program misleadingly called “nuclear modernization”—as though the military were merely polishing up its old bombs—the United States was embarking on an estimated $1.7 trillion spending program to replace every part of its arsenal, with eyes now on a new Cold War with Beijing.
Hundreds of miles north of Aiken, the town of Brunswick, Maine, had long played host to the Brunswick Naval Air Station, a base for aircraft that patrolled the Atlantic hunting for nuclear-armed Russian submarines. Then, in 2011, as part of Congress’ Base Realignment and Closure, the BRAC process, the base was shut down.
Soon after the closure became official, Rick Wilson, an educator who taught a class on service learning at Brunswick High School, got a call from someone at the Brunswick Local Redevelopment Authority, a federally funded body tasked with repurposing the air station. The organization wanted to know if Wilson’s students were interested in offering ideas on what to do with the herculean airfield and its surrounding hangars. About 45 high schoolers soon signed up for a bus tour of the base, where they got a look at a shuttered firing range and an empty commissary.
Back at school, they broke into small groups to pore over maps. That workshop became the first step in a very different process of military industry transition than the one taken in Aiken, South Carolina. In a sense, it led Redevelopment Authority officials to rebuild the base the way a master carpenter would. They started from the ground up rather than from the top down, carefully considering all of their materials, which in this case were the town’s citizens and existing facilities.
The high school’s workshop was called, “BRAC to Basics: What would YOU do with 3,300 Acres?” Next to their maps the students scribbled statements like, “eco-sensitive,” “no ‘base feel’,” and “no fences.” Steve Levesque, the Redevelopment Authority’s chief, said he expected the students would fill their maps with arcades and skate parks. Instead, they ranked economic development and mixed residential, commercial and recreational spaces as top priorities. The question they seemed most interested in, Levesque told me, was both obvious and sophisticated: “How can we use this as a platform for technology and innovation and good jobs for the future?” he said. The students even came up with the name for those 3,300 acres: Brunswick Landing. They saw it as an aviation metaphor for a long flight that was finally coming home.
For every $1 million invested by the government, according to calculations by Brown University, the military industry creates 6.9 jobs. By comparison, the same amount invested in clean energy creates 9.8 jobs.
Compared with adults preoccupied with the immediate loss of tax revenue and drops in home values, Wilson said the students focused on the future. “I don’t think they were really fearful of it. I think that age embraces change.” The redevelopment authority also held visioning sessions and bus tours for hundreds of locals, a randomized phone survey of more than 400 residents, and open office hours.
Based on the feedback it received, in 2012 the BLRA embarked on a marketing campaign to promote the Landing as a hub for green industry and high-tech employment. The campaign touted Brunswick’s nearby higher education institutes, like Southern Maine Community College, the University of Maine, and Bowdoin College; Brunswick’s easy access to highways, a seaport, a railway, and an airport; and a series of tax credits from the state and federal government. The agency produced a clever workforce study of professionals in the area, such as carpenters, bus drivers and electricians, whom it rebranded as “14,490 workers in occupations likely to produce green workers.”
There was one substantial catch. Decades of hazardous waste produced during the base’s military years led the base to be designated a Superfund site in 1987. The restrictions on digging and consuming local water kept at least one prospective newcomer away—the local Humane Society, which worried about its dogs eating grass from polluted soil.
But groundwater pollution has done little to dim interest in the Landing. One real estate agent I spoke with said that, over the last decade, she has marketed about 240 homes that were once used by officers and the enlisted. Four-bedroom houses near a YMCA and walking trails now sell for under $300,000, unthinkable in nearby Portland and Boston.
Heidi Peltier, an economist with Brown University who researches converting military economies to civilian ones, is not persuaded by the military industry’s promises to a community that it will bring in hordes of good jobs. If anything, her research suggests, military spending is one of the poorest ways to create jobs; this is partly because the military industry’s capital-intensive nature leaves little money for salaries, as compared with other institutional fields such as education and healthcare.
For every $1 million invested by the government, according to Peltier’s calculations, the military industry creates 6.9 jobs. By comparison, the same amount invested in clean energy creates 9.8 jobs. Peltier’s analysis might help explain an interesting finding in a recent report by the National Defense Industrial Association: despite ever-increasing military budgets, overall employment in the military industry dropped from 3.2 million in 1985 to an estimated 1.1 million in 2019.
One reason that communities tend to cling to military contracts is they fear that those contractors’ employees will struggle to find other work. But in a recent paper for Brown University, Peltier pointed out that the military industry draws from the same labor pool of technical workers that the clean energy and infrastructure sectors do. Far from being abandoned, these workers are ready and waiting for more productive jobs.
Beyond their environmental virtue, enterprises such as clean energy also have an unappreciated economic advantage over military contractors: The military industry is what economists call monopsonistic, or a market that has only one buyer: the government. Energy, on the other hand, has a potential market of every person who turns on a light bulb.
These are all good macroeconomic theories; the more important question, of course, is whether they can turn into microeconomic realities on the ground.
As the years went on in Brunswick, its city center seemed to shift to the Landing. Before the base’s closure, most jobs on the base were in services (such as the commissary); today, more and more are high-tech or entrepreneurial. By the end of 2021, 150 businesses had set up on the former Brunswick base, increasing the civilian jobs at Brunswick Landing to triple the number the base had when it relied on the Pentagon for employment. While precise data from private firms is hard to pin down, Levesque, the redevelopment chief, says the collective payroll of today’s employees appears to be higher than that of the base’s civilian and military employees combined before it closed.
“Who are you fooling?” said a pastor from a town across the river. “You didn’t do nothing with [the] MOX fuel factory.”
Today, visitors to the Landing can find a popular local bakery, a secure data storage firm housed in a former NATO command and control center, and a variety of environmentally auspicious start-ups. Those enterprises include an anaerobic digester that converts wastewater into biogas; a floating oyster farm designed to capture carbon and rebuild food systems; and bluShift Aerospace, a manufacturer of rockets for scientific research that run off biofuel (thus, no ocean pollution when they return to earth).
When the Brunswick redevelopment authority committed to a process of listening to the community, that didn’t mean it accepted every project. Sometimes, in fact, residents and redevelopment officials were bitterly at odds. But Brunswick Landing’s planning process seemed to be based on a commitment to engaging the public, and listening. As an example, early on the redevelopment authority proposed repurposing part of the site for drone testing. After BLRA officials got angry pushback from peace activists and city council members, they dropped the idea.
Somewhat ironically, one of the Landing’s most successful projects was in energy development, the very industry that the Savannah River Site failed to master, despite years of being propped up by billion-dollar government subsidies. It may be instructive that Brunswick’s energy project–ORPC, a developer of zero-emissions underwater river turbines–leaned on environmentally friendly, renewable resources a bit more than the SRS did.
ORPC’s president was a Maine native named John Ferland who had worked in the marine industry since the 1980s. To prove the turbine’s viability, ORPC had, in 2014, partnered with the tribal community of Igiugig in southwestern Alaska. Residents there wanted a clean power source that harnessed the rushing waters of the Kvichak River while not harming the salmon that are the bedrock of the local fishing economy.
Part of the funding for the pilot project came through two grants from the DOE, the same source that funded the MOX project. The grants totaled $5.7 million, which constitutes roughly 0.1 percent (or one thousandth) of the amount of money that DOE spent on South Carolina’s MOX plant. But unlike the MOX project, which never powered a single light bulb, Brunswick’s ORPC turbines powered a whole village, cutting Igiugig’s diesel consumption by 90 percent.
Two months after Brunswick’s river turbine launch, back in South Carolina, LaBerge, the horse farm owner struck by the TV ads directed at sick nuclear workers, made his way to a community center for a rare chance to speak out about producing a new round of nuclear weapons at the SRS.
The hearing was hosted by the Department of Energy, which had set up the community center like a trade show. Inside, people manning promotional booths with oversized posters pulled passers-by aside to tout the nuclear industry’s technological prowess and its contributions to local commerce. To LaBerge, the event felt like politicians campaigning outside polling stations on election day, a practice that is strictly forbidden.
Inside the hearing room, participants signed up for three-minute time slots, with no opportunity for back-and-forth debate. The staid format lent a peculiar drama to the dire pleas that followed. “Who are you fooling? You didn’t do nothing with [the] MOX fuel factory,” said a pastor from a town across the river. “Set your goals on something that’s better than killing one another.”
One environmentalist mentioned the new United Nations treaty to ban nuclear weapons, adopted in 2021: “We’re out of step with the way the world is going.” A woman who grew up in Aiken said her father and his fellow workers at the plant had been “lab rats” exposed to toxic materials used in nuclear weapons. “He died a slow, suffering death, gasping to breathe,” she said. Others pointed out that the United States already has thousands of spare pits in storage and that they may have a lifetime of 100 or more years.
Dozens of the project’s boosters lined up to comment as well. The president of a local association of building trade unions said repurposing the MOX complex would “get a return on the taxpayers’ investments in those facilities.” A representative from the powerful South Carolina Manufacturers Alliance touted what he said would be thousands of construction jobs at the site. The president of Aiken’s United Way said SRS employees were “vital” as volunteers and fundraisers for local nonprofits, noting that the plant’s workers were, at that very moment, hosting a community softball tournament. But such civic activities are routine in towns across the country, whether the employees organizing them make warheads or solar panels.
The event was billed as an opportunity to hear environmental concerns from locals. Any people wanting to pursue an entirely different economic path were supposed to voice their opinions in a different forum: the local Community Reuse Organization, which, on paper, is the Aiken counterpart to Levesque’s redevelopment authority in Brunswick.
Funded by the DOE, Community Reuse Organizations were created after the Cold War. Called CROs (to add yet another acronym, and a few more still coming) their mission was to help military-industry towns find economic alternatives to their reliance on nuclear weapons. But the Savannah River Site CRO (called the SRSCRO) has close ties to the nuclear weapons industry. Three members are from a business group called the SouthernCarolina Alliance, and its board recently included the manager of government and community relations for Savannah River Nuclear Solutions (SRNS), a joint venture comprising several major military contractors, that was responsible for planning plutonium pit production. The CRO also includes the president of Aiken Technical College, which has received hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations from SRNS.
SRSCRO’s president is a man named Rick McLeod, who has publicly endorsed pit production as a replacement for the MOX plant. In other words, an organization funded by taxpayers to chart a path out of dependence on the weapons industry is now led by someone advocating an expansion of nuclear weaponry (at an annual salary, according to the SRSCRO’s 2020 tax filing, of $170,484.) McLeod told me he supported the plutonium pit project because it would employ 3,000 workers. When I asked him for more details, McLeod walked that number back by a good margin. He said only 1,800 workers would be directly employed, and that was just during the “peak year” of construction; the rest of those jobs would be “indirect,” and thus merely “expected.”
To put those figures in context, in 2021, the Department of Energy released a stunning estimate. Converting the MOX plant to pit production, the agency said, would cost $11.1 billion. Based on another set of estimates, from Peltier, the Brown University economist, that size subsidy could employ 10,800 people in clean energy for a decade. That sort of discrepancy is why David Story, a military-industry worker and unionist in Alabama who supports cutting the Pentagon budget, wrote in a recent op-ed for The Nation that, for the working class, outsize military spending means “stealing jobs that could be ours.”
A CRO should be the forum for locals to bring up such tradeoffs, but when I spoke with several Aiken-area residents active in civic affairs, they told me they don’t go to CRO meetings or hadn’t even heard of the organization. “I have never seen CRO try to engage with the general public,” said Donald Moniak, an Aiken-area activist on hazardous waste issues. Remarkably, McLeod did not dispute this. When I asked him if ordinary residents use the CRO as a forum to discuss economic diversification, this was his emailed response: “Our meetings are not a public forum for such discourse.”
In other military towns, citizens have also felt excluded from big decisions on contracting. In Asheville, N.C., for example, a vibrant local protest and watchdog group formed in late 2020, after residents learned that their county commissioners had negotiated a multimillion-dollar package of subsidies for military contractor Raytheon to set up a new factory in town. Citizens had only one public hearing to voice their opinions. And if they wanted to learn anything about the project before the meeting, that would have been difficult. They later learned that county and economic development officials had already signed non-disclosure agreements with Raytheon.
Much the same kind of self-dealing permeates the management of the national nuclear weapons stockpile. Four people—the directors of the Sandia, Lawrence Livermore, and Los Alamos nuclear labs, along with the head of the military’s Strategic Command—are responsible for answering officials when they want to know if the U.S. arsenal is in functioning shape; and whether, for example, it needs new plutonium pits at all. “Of those four people,” said Dr. Sharon Weiner, the former White House nuclear staffer, “three of them are for-profit contractors that stand to gain from the answer to their question.”
When local levers of democratic participation are dysfunctional, where does a concerned citizen turn for some accountability for the MOX plant’s failures? Since the federal government conceived and funded this project, I went on a labyrinthine search inside the iron triangle—calling Congressional offices, bureaucrats, and contractors—trying to find a reckoning.
At the National Nuclear Security Administration, the agency which oversaw MOX and will also be responsible for pit production, I was told that the DOE had conducted both internal and external reviews of MOX’s cost overruns. I then asked if those reviews led to any corrective action for the parties involved. The NNSA would not give me specifics, but a spokesperson told me that “a contractor’s past performance is a criteria routinely considered in future contract awards.” I also asked an aide to Sen. Graham why Congress did not pull the plug on MOX when serious troubles emerged, and the project failed to find any customers for its fuel. No response, despite numerous calls and emails.
At a think-tank event in 2020, Democratic Rep. Adam Smith, chair of the powerful House Armed Services Committee, called the MOX debacle “pretty close to white collar crime.” So I asked one of the Congressman’s aides whether Smith might support conducting an audit of what went wrong at MOX before authorizing more rounds of spending at the site. No response. I also reached out to DOE, to learn why the agency keeps funding a Community Reuse Organization, whose head says it is “not a public forum.” No response here either.
Over the years, other reporters and watchdogs have approached these politicians and agencies with questions like mine, but there has been no thorough accounting for what led to the MOX boondoggle and how pit production at the same site will guard against the same pitfalls. I tried to find out if any of the MOX players may resurface in pit production. The main MOX contractor, CB&I Areva MOX Services, is now part of companies that do business under different names–Chicago Bridge & Iron merged with McDermott International, while Areva renamed itself Orano. I contacted representatives from both McDermott and Orano by phone and email to ask if they would continue to bid on federal projects. Neither responded to me.
As troubles at South Carolina’s MOX plant increased, Senator Graham found a way to adapt his views. After hailing MOX as a crucial nonproliferation project, in 2019 he quietly co-authored an amendment to the annual military bill calling for a surge in pit production—based in New Mexico, and in South Carolina, Sen. Graham’s home state. For those who have spent years and even decades seeking environmental and fiscal accountability at the SRS, its resurrection as a bomb plant is difficult to bear. LaBerge talks about selling his horse farm if the SRS restarts nuclear weapons production; Clements, the local watchdog, is considering retiring.
But Clements hasn’t entirely given up yet. Last November, he set up a table outside a Jackson Browne and James Taylor concert in Greenville, S.C., to get people to sign letters urging Rep. Smith to investigate MOX rather than build news pits at the site. About a hundred people happily obliged.
“As MOX was dying, the uproar was that they were going to lose the money that was going to the contractors,” Clements told me. “So it was no surprise that the MOX project morphed into a pit project to fill the jobs.” It’s now been months since Clements mailed those letters; he says he has still not heard a word from Smith.
Afterword: The profiteering history Taylor Barnes unearthed at the Savannah River Site—more the norm, unfortunately, than the community-oriented history in Brunswick—sends a grim message. In our minds as the publishers of this article, that message, and its consequences, are significant enough that we’re taking the unusual step of including this Afterword.
The problem in military towns goes beyond the fact that many continue to be controlled by a powerful trio that acts primarily, and sometimes solely, for its own financial self-interest. We now see that the members of that trio, and their myriad functionaries, continually find ways to make decisions without consulting, or even including, the very communities that will be shaped by their decisions. And when the press and other watchdogs attempt to ask the questions that a community’s citizens want answered, they too are ignored.
These dynamics are not remotely consistent with the principles of democracy—at least the kind of democracy that President Abraham Lincoln had in mind when he famously called for “a government of the people, by the people, for the people.” Maybe it’s time to admit the largest sector of the government’s discretionary funds are being spent on what has essentially become an American oligarchy.
In Eisenhower’s farewell address, the same speech that labeled and vilified the military-industrial complex, he offered a way to fight back.“…only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of huge industrial and military machinery,” he said. Let’s hope that, once again, Eisenhower was more prescient than he realized when he delivered this speech.