After a Week of Nuclear Protest, the Machinery of War Remains Grimly in Place

updated 05/03/1982 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/03/1982 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Last week was Ground Zero week in the U.S., a time when a small but growing vanguard of concerned Americans summoned the nation to a vision of nuclear Armageddon. Their immediate goal, publicized by a series of marches and teach-ins, was a freeze on the manufacture of atomic weapons. Yet even as these activists were urging a halt, those responsible for preparing a possible nuclear showdown went eerily, routinely onward. In Washington, a federal bureaucrat continued planning, with an almost Strangelovian detachment, for life after doomsday. And despite an impassioned call to conscience by a local church official in Amarillo, Texas, work at the nation's only nuclear warhead factory went on as usual.

FEMA's Joseph Mealy plans for doomsday

Up at 6, breakfast with the wife and kids, then out of the house, into the Datsun and on to the office by 8:15. Joseph Mealy starts his day like thousands of other Washington bureaucrats, but the papers in his in box are hardly routine. On a recent morning Mealy began by reviewing a research contractor's proposal to study how many medical personnel in the country would survive to treat the casualties in a nuclear war. "There won't be many doctors performing heart transplants," observes Mealy, 48. "We may have to accept the idea that a veterinarian might be treating you to save your life. The medical problem is the most severe. Whatever the losses in food and manufacturing, they will be balanced by losses in population."

Mealy, with a salary of $57,500, is one of a small cadre of Americans paid by taxpayers to think about the unthinkable. His title is a bureaucratic thicket: Chief of the Emergency Management Systems Support Division of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Better to call him the government's doomsday manager. He directs a staff of 36, which maintains public bomb shelters and the emergency broadcast system and coordinates crisis management in each of the country's 5,600 political subdivisions, mostly at the county level. "Unlike some public servants who want to practice their trade," he says dryly, "each day I don't have to is a plus."

In planning civil defense, FEMA relies on computer models to predict how much could be salvaged following attacks of varying magnitude. "American society would come back, although not in its current form," Mealy predicts. "In the aftermath of a large-scale attack involving destruction of our major cities, centralized authority in the U.S. would break down. We'd really go back to the barn-raising notion of self-government." To start the process of reconstruction, FEMA has stashed $700 million in U.S. currency in Virginia and set up an underground Federal Reserve Bank in Kansas to handle it. The agency also stores 70,000 pounds of opium in secret locations to ease the suffering of blast survivors. There is a shelter beneath the White House for staff members, but the President would be helicoptered to Andrews Air Force Base to board a specially equipped 747 from which he could supposedly run the country.

Although FEMA has developed evacuation plans for rural communities near missile bases, the agency hasn't yet come up with a detailed crisis relocation plan for large cities. Mealy and his colleagues, presupposing that they will be given three to five days' notice of a nuclear attack, are pondering whether to organize urban escape by home address or workplace. If families are moved according to the breadwinner's business address, Mealy points out hopefully, "the community receiving people figures it's not a horde coming out there, but the GE plant—and you still have bosses and supervisors in the leadership role."

Mealy devotes most of his time to the nuts and bolts of postwar survival. On a typical afternoon, he learns that water is seeping into the radiation-hazard detectors at a Grimes, Iowa National Guard facility, and that in Colorado local civil defense officials are changing batteries for the detectors every four years instead of every two. Another worrisome issue for FEMA concerns water requirements. One of Mealy's aides insists that FEMA's allotment of a daily quart of water to sustain an adult underground has been proved too low by recent research. Mealy is reviewing the matter. (FEMA is also redesigning its water containers so they can be used in peacetime for fire fighting.)

Mealy usually puts such concerns behind him when he returns home to his wife, Sibyl, 46, in suburban Rockville, Md. "But when Joe has had a particularly stressful day—not often—he takes it out on the piano," she says. The son of a Government Printing Office employee, Mealy, who still limps from a childhood bout with polio, earned his political science degree at Georgetown. Offered a clerk's job with the Civil Defense Administration (FEMA's predecessor), he took it in 1955. "I just needed the money," he explains. Mercifully for him, Mealy seems untroubled by holocaust nightmares. "I'm just like a doctor who works with cancer patients all the time," he says. "We develop mechanisms for coping on an unemotional level." He, his wife and the four of their five children who still live at home don't even have a fallout shelter in their house. "Frankly, I don't think about the possibility of a nuclear war a lot," says Sibyl. "Joe's work doesn't scare me."

In Amarillo, warheads are all in a day's work

A Texas poet has called it "the factory where the end of the world begins." Set amid the rolling landscape of the Texas panhandle, 17 dusty miles northeast of Amarillo, is the ultrasecret Pantex Plant where all the nation's nuclear warheads are assembled. Those who know aren't talking, but barbershop wisdom has it that three nuclear weapons a day rumble off the sprawling, 10,000-acre reservation in squat railroad boxcars and trucks.

More than barbed wire and impenetrable electronic defenses insulate the 2,400 Pantex employees from the anti-nuke movement. This dry prairie land, so fine for winter wheat growing, is resistant to liberal politics. In 1964 the Amarillo area voted for Sen. Barry Goldwater for President, and many people still believe that Lyndon Johnson closed the town's Strategic Air Command base in retaliation. With a $60 million annual payroll, the Defense Department's Pantex Plant is the largest private employer in Amarillo, and the city has no intention of sticking its neck out again. "The people in this area recognize the need for a national defense," says Mayor Rick Klein. "We are all kind of astounded that any criticism has even come up."

In a community that fervently boosts God and country, the source of that criticism is especially unsettling. Roman Catholic Bishop Leroy T. Matthiesen sent a shudder through Amarillo's conservative bedrock last December when he criticized President Reagan's decision to go ahead with the assembly of neutron bombs. The Bishop urged workers at Pantex to search their consciences and consider leaving their jobs. Public reaction was fierce and immediate. Some local people dismissed the Bishop as "sincere but misguided," others thought his views bordered on treason. When Matthiesen secured a $10,000 donation for the support and counseling of Pantex employees who quit, and arranged for the money to be administered by Catholic Family Services, the local United Way, which is heavily supported by Pantex, canceled its $45,000 pledge to the Catholic charity.

Despite the controversy, community support for Pantex appears nearly unshakable. Most people in Amarillo seem proud of the city's contribution to the nation's nuclear arsenal. Pantex workers attach explosive chemical triggers to weapons-grade uranium, tritium and plutonium, add fail-safe components, then ship the warheads out for potential delivery by missiles and bombers. "No one likes weapons and no one likes war, but it is my position that it would be immoral for us to be unable to defend ourselves," says the Rev. J. Alan Ford, 35, a Baptist pastor. "Nuclear weapons are a necessary part of defense." Later this month Ford has scheduled a Pantex Appreciation Day, though he maintains that morale is already high at the plant. "No one is going to quit a $20,000 job to get $2,000 to $3,000 in aid," he says.

So far no Pantex employee is known to have surrendered his job as a matter of conscience, and fewer than half a dozen have sought counseling through Catholic Family Services. Instead, the men and women workers continue to report for two daily shifts, apparently without serious concern. The plant's jumble of buildings includes key bunker structures covered with earth and concrete for protection against explosives and tornadoes. Paul Wagner, 57, a retired Navy lieutenant commander, is the Department of Energy area manager who oversees the civilian contractor, Mason & Hanger-Silas Mason Company. "Many people simply won't believe it," he says, "but the only real danger in here is from the chemical explosives that are used to trigger the nuclear explosives." All refined uranium and plutonium arriving at Pantex is protectively encased. "A person would get more radiation from the sun in one day flying from coast to coast than he would get inside the plant in a month," says Wagner.

Since Catholics constitute only an estimated 12 percent of Amarillo's population, and most are politically conservative, Bishop Matthiesen, 60, has found his most responsive audiences elsewhere. "I have been accused of being on an ego trip," he observes, "but it's important to me that the issue has been raised. I believe in education, so I have been responding to invitations to speak all over the country." But no more. Explaining that he believes "people need time to reflect," the Bishop has decided to make no out-of-town appearances until next fall at the earliest. Still, his whistle-stop speaking and fund raising already have come close to making up for the cut-off of United Way support. Some $20,000 has been raised for the counseling fund, though for now it is money unspent. "The nuclear freeze is an issue in other places," declares City Commissioner David Taylor. "It's not an issue here at all."

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