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Voters Weigh In On Future Of Nuclear Weapons Manufacturing

Sylvia Maria Gross

Question 3 on Kansas City, Missouri’s ballot tomorrow, deals with an issue that’s generated heated discussion in City Hall over the past few years. It’s about Kansas City’s future in nuclear weapons manufacturing.

Kansas City has played a role in the manufacture of nuclear weapons since 1949, when a World War II defense plant on Bannister Road began to make the non-nuclear components of these warheads. 

The National Nuclear Security Agency contracted that work to a company called Bendix (after a merger, it’s now called Honeywell).  At the height of the Cold War, in the 1980s, the factory employed some 8000 workers.

That was when psychologist Rachel MacNair first got involved in the movement against nuclear weapons. 

“Back in the 1970s and 80s, people were really afraid the world was going to end in a nuclear holocaust,” MacNair says.

She joined a group in Kansas City that advocated converting the Bannister facility to a factory that made some other product.

“At the time it was a pie-in-the-sky, starry-eyed idealist,  easily-dismissed kind of idea,” MacNair says. “And then the Cold War ended. And the Cold War has been over for a couple of decades.  And nowadays we have retired military people, we have military experts, we have the same people who set up mutually assured destruction saying that it’s time to get rid of nuclear weapons.

According to The Kansas City Star, the Honeywell plant currently employs about 2000 workers, who “maintain the W76 missile warhead, a submarine-based weapon which is seven times as powerful as the Hiroshima bomb.”

The factory is getting old, though, and Kansas City officials were afraid of losing the plant, and the jobs, to New Mexico. So, they offered tax incentives to a private developer. And in 2010, ground was broken on a $1 billion new facility.  

MacNair thought the project made no sense, since the Obama administration is talking about reducing nuclear arsenals.

“I just could not stand the idea of building a whole new plant as if we were going to be making new parts for decades.” 

Anti-nuclear weapon activists in Kansas City tried to stop the incentives with previous petitions. And two years ago, some 50 people were arrested in a protest at the construction site. 

The building’s complete now. The NNSA and Honeywell have been transferring operations already. It’s supposed to go online in August of 2014. 

The question on the ballot isn’t about shutting down the new plant down, but rather, it prohibits the city from offering any futures incentives to “facilities that produce or procure components for, assemble, or refurbish nuclear weapons.”  This would apply to companies that work exclusively with Honeywell or any future nuclear weapons plant. 

According to city councilman Scott Taylor, this makes Kansas City look like an unappealing place to do business.

“A company, regardless of the size, is looking to locate a new facility.  They will usually have a site selection process, that has multiple sites,” Taylor says. “And if one of those sites happens to have something that’s different from all the others, that’s a little strange and  really might require some additional legal work, or research to see if they have some legal issues, they’ll just take us off the list and move to the other options because it will be a lot easier for them.”

Taylor is the at-large councilman in District 6, where the new plant is located.  He says the new building has already helped bolster Kansas City’s construction industry through the recession. And he’s hoping it will anchor development in a struggling part of town.

‘Specifically in South Kansas City, we’ve really been fighting hard for the Three Trails re-development, the old Bannister Mall,” Taylor says. “We’ve had an incentive package on all that property; it’s already in place, we’ve already done that. If a company has any ties to this facility there’s a question as to whether they can even locate there if they wanted to. If they can’t locate there, it’s just as easy for a lot of these companies looking to locate near this plant to locate in Overland Park, Leawood, Grandview and other areas.  I’d rather have them in South Kansas City.”

Taylor says the old Bannister facility is on federal land, so it doesn’t generate taxes for the city and the school district.  The new plant is on private land, so despite the incentives, it will bring in property taxes for Kansas City, Missouri, as well as the Grandview school district, which dips into KC at that spot.

Taylor says he understands the intent behind the ballot question.

‘We all agree that it would be nice if all countries would disarm nuclear weapons,’ Taylor says. “But that’s not the world we live in and quite frankly the language of this doesn’t address disarmament or doing anything with the federal government specifically.  My concern is that the unintended consequences of this would be very dramatic for our local economy.”

Other opponents say that the ballot question would not stop the production of nuclear weapons, anyway, that it would just shift the jobs elsewhere. 

But proponents say they want to raise awareness that the nuclear weapons plant is here, and that it’s controversial. 

This story was produced for KC Currents, which airs Sundays at 5pm with a repeat Mondays at 8pm. To listen on your own schedule, subscribe to the KCCurrents podcast.

Sylvia Maria Gross is storytelling editor at KCUR 89.3. Reach her on Twitter @pubradiosly.
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