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On the Road With the Mobile Chernobyl

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Kevin Kamps and Gabriela Bulisova, who met in 1995, just before they were arrested in Moscow as part of "Walk Across Europe for a Nuclear-Free World," rolled into Evanston last month with their "Mobile Chernobyl" in tow. The mock nuclear waste container is twenty feet long, seven feet wide, and made almost entirely of sheet metal donated by a friend who works for General Motors. One panel is painted with a skull and crossbones; another bears the words "DANGER! HIGH-LEVEL NUCLEAR WASTE."

When not in use, the cask sits in Kamps's grandmother's driveway in Kalamazoo, close to where the couple married in 1997 and once ran a peace and justice center that aided visually impaired children from Chernobyl. Now Kamps, who's 31, works for the Nuclear Information and Resource Service in Washington, D.C. He and Bulisova, who's 27 and from Dubnica, Slovakia, were in Illinois to infiltrate the U.S. Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory.

Kamps and Bulisova arrived in Evanston, a nuclear-free zone since 1985, on July 13. With the Mobile Chernobyl behind their rented SUV, they needed at least 30 feet to park. After they found an ideal space right outside the police station, a lieutenant came up to ask what they were doing. Bulisova pulled out several brochures.

She explained in detail their cross-country trek to tell citizens about President Bush's national energy policy, which includes loading radioactive waste into real mobile Chernobyls, then transporting the containers across America by truck and train to the Nevada desert. After 20 minutes, Bulisova asked whether the officers in Evanston knew what to do in the event of a high-level nuclear radiation accident. She handed over those pamphlets too.

A few nights later, Kamps and Bulisova drove out to Argonne to see Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham. The former senator from Michigan, a sometime backer of drilling for oil in the Great Lakes, was at the lab prepping for a reservations-required "town hall meeting" designed to bring support to the energy policy. Abraham had a set list of questions from the crowd of 200, comprised largely of Argonne employees.

Kamps and Bulisova, who call Bush's policy the "national energy tragedy," congregated in a forest preserve parking lot at the foot of Argonne's mile-long driveway with 30 other environmental activists. The majority were in formal business attire. A TV news crew was also there.

Outfitted in a gray pinstripe suit, Kamps explained, "We want to look good for the cameras--we don't want to be dismissed for how we're dressed."

Smiling confidently from a podium a few minutes later, Kamps declared, "The GOP is the 'Gas, Oil, and Petroleum Party!'" which drew hearty applause from the crowd, including the half-dozen orators who'd gone before him. Bulisova didn't stop taking pictures until Kate Loewe, from "Clear the Air--The National Campaign Against Dirty Power," finally wrapped things up.

As the throng dispersed, a group called Citizens for a Sound Economy arrived and headed up Argonne's driveway. The entourage of four, in matching red T-shirts and carrying a sign that read "Foreign Oil Is a Pain in My Gas," had reservations to see Abraham. Jason Gross, 30, the director of the group's Iowa chapter, would like to flay Bush over the Kyoto Protocol, but supports "some drilling" for oil in Alaska. "I'm all about doing what needs to be done," he said.

The Mobile Chernobyl trailed a few hundred feet behind. A little nervous, Kamps checked the radiation monitor that he always keeps in his pocket. "Thirteen counts per minute," he told his wife. She said that seemed reasonable and offered him some trail mix.

At the security gate, a wary guard eyed Kamps and said, "Can I help you, sir?"

Kamps replied that he was there for the town hall meeting. The guard took a minute to lean out the window of his booth. He scanned the length of the Mobile Chernobyl, then directed Kamps to pull ahead to the visitors' center and "stand by." Kamps was about to ask why, but the guard said, "Sir, it's just better than where you're at now."

"Ask him for how long," Bulisova said, but Kamps was already going forward and reciting his next one-liner: "How long? Probably 250,000 years--that's how long the deadliness of plutonium lasts."

Once Kamps had maneuvered the Mobile Chernobyl alongside the visitors' center, another guard appeared and told him to move it farther away. "I have a feeling that they're stalling," Kamps said. Bulisova offered to guard the rig from the guards, and Kamps went inside.

His boss, Diane D'Arrigo, must have made the reservations in her name, Kamps told the four people behind the counter. It only took a few seconds to find her on the list. Kamps walked out with what he came for.

But the Citizens for a Sound Economy, having witnessed the exchange, then sent Gross to the counter. He told the staffers they had just furnished tickets to a man who would be driving an offensive, antinuclear vehicle into a meeting with the Secretary of Energy.

Kamps was within reach of the Mobile Chernobyl when the Argonne security posse approached.

There were five guards total, and the one who looked 18 said, "There's been a mistake--that lady made an error." From behind dark glasses, another said to "hand over the tickets." When Kamps asked why, a Dirty Harry clone stepped up, grabbed Kamps's arm, and wrested the booty from his grip, causing him to bellow: "I just had tickets and now they're gone!" The other guards were looking askance at their Eastwood, who shot back: "I did ask him nicely!"

Right after Kamps called the Abraham event "invitation-only democracy," a pair of Du Page County sheriff's police showed up. "Actually, it is not an open meeting," one of the cops said. "If you don't move this vehicle, I'll have you arrested for trespassing."

"Oh, that is an extremely professional level of behavior," said Bulisova, who had one hand on the door of the Mobile Chernobyl, then scrambled back inside.

A dejected Kamps joined her. He clutched what was left of their tickets--one ragged-edged souvenir--the entire ride back to the forest preserve parking lot. "I don't want to spend the night in jail," he said.

While Kamps plotted how to drive all night to the next day's rally in Missouri, Abraham concluded his town hall meeting with the assertion that "energy security is linked to national security and economic security."

The Citizens for a Sound Economy were there to clap. Later, in the lobby, Gross said he had no regrets telling the visitors' center that Kamps was behind the wheel of transportation unfit for the occasion.

"I thought the ladies behind the desk were in error," Gross said. He added that getting kicked out of meetings is a risk any seasoned activist must take. "I have been turned away from many events."

As Kamps drove away from Argonne toward Missouri, Bulisova asked him for a radioactivity reading.

"Fifteen millirem--it's nothing," said Kamps. They drove in silence a minute and then Kamps said, "The Department of Energy is really trying to downplay the nuclear waste transport issue. I really think it's become our job to warn people about it."

"So," added the seasoned activist, "I've got to stay out of the clink."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Tony Law/Gabriela Bulisova.

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