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Interview with Marylia Kelley, 2019 Visionary Leaders Award Recipient

Photo: Tri-Valley CAREs

This year at the 2019 PSR Visionary Leaders Awards, we are delighted to honor several  outstanding advocates who are working to abolish nuclear weapons and to address environmental hazards to health, including the climate crisis.

Each week you will have an opportunity to meet one of our awardees.  This week, meet Marylia Kelley who will be receiving the 2019 Visionary Leaders award for her work as an anti-nuclear advocate.

Marylia Kelley is the Co-Founder and Executive Director  of Tri-Valley Communities Against a Radioactive Environment (CAREs). CAREs in a non-profit organization based in Livermore California that monitors the activities of the Energy Department’s nuclear weapons complex.

PSR caught up with Kelley to ask her about how she came to do this work, what inspires her, and her advice for young people just starting to get involved in advocacy.

Q: What first drew you to this type of work?

In a way, I was drawn to this work as a child. I am from the generation that practiced “duck-and-cover” drills in the classroom when the air raid sirens sounded each month. In sixth grade, I was assigned to draw the window blinds before getting under my desk. I knew that this was a futile exercise, and I also knew that it was not okay to say so out loud. I closed the blinds and crouched under my desk, hands locked behind my neck.

I was drawn to this work, too, by the Cuban Missile Crisis, when I came home from school to find my mother sitting on the kitchen floor putting extra flour and sugar and dried rice into a second set of bins, as if that could save her family. I knew I wasn’t supposed to talk about it. I also knew this was the only thing my mom could think of, and I didn’t want to take whatever small comfort it offered away from her.

I moved to Livermore, California in 1976. At first I only knew that there was a super-secret government lab that employed a lot of people in my new hometown. No one spoke about it. Slowly, I came to realize that the Livermore Lab was one of two sites that design every nuclear weapon in the U.S. arsenal. After some years of reflection and study, I came to the conclusion that nuclear weapons were immoral and that their use by anyone under any circumstance could never be justified. Now an adult, I felt a responsibility to speak out. In 1983, when I was invited to help create a homegrown nuclear watchdog group in Livermore, I said, “Yes.”

Q: How have the health impacts of nuclear weapons-related policies informed your work?

The health and environmental impacts of nuclear weapons have always been part of Tri-Valley CAREs’ work. When we founded the group in 1983, the major arguments against nuclear weapons involved their immorality (humanitarian impacts) and their economic injustice (guns vs. butter).

As Livermore residents, including some Lab workers, we wanted to find out if there were environmental and health impacts stemming from the development of nuclear weapons. We knew the devastation of an exploded nuclear weapon. But, we asked, what about the unexploded nuclear bomb?

As a journalist, I came to Tri-Valley CAREs with knowledge of how to use the Freedom of Information Act and related skills. Soon we were combing government records. The accounts we read of accidents, spills, and leaks at Livermore Lab surpassed by far the expectations we had held in our minds. Even our co-founding members who worked there were astonished. From our early days, researching, writing and speaking on the connection between nuclear weapons development and environmental and health harms has been central to our approach. Tri-Valley CAREs has won operational changes at Livermore Lab and other sites in the nuclear weapons complex even as we also achieved victories that stopped specific weapons programs and influenced national policy.

Q: What would be your advice to a young person just starting to get involved in this type of work?

Tri-Valley CAREs has an internship program and we attract both high school and university interns. I often advise that choosing to pursue nuclear disarmament is meaningful, consequential and fulfilling. And, it is never boring!

At Tri-Valley CAREs, we try to demonstrate these tenets by giving interns a chance to experience more than one aspect of our work. Some may start their internship with our staff attorney helping Livermore Lab workers made ill by on-the-job exposures to obtain compensation. Others may work with us on the Superfund cleanup of toxic and radioactive wastes from nuclear activities that have leached into our community aquifer. Still others begin by studying nuclear policy, with a focus on the weapons Livermore is designing. Some come to Washington, D.C. with us to conduct advocacy in administration and congressional offices. By the conclusion of the internship, we strive to have given each person hands-on experience—and in the field(s) of highest interest to them. That is more life changing than any piece of advice I might give!

Q: When it comes to changes or advances in nuclear weapons policies, what is your greatest hope for the coming year?

Internationally, I hope to see the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) achieve the ratification by 50 nations necessary for the treaty to enter into force. This may take two years rather than one, but I do see it happening.

Nationally, I hope to stymie many of the nuclear programs that were in the Trump administration’s 2018 Nuclear Posture Review. One priority is to prevent deployment of Trump’s so-called “low yield” submarine-launched nuclear warhead. That decision may occur in a matter of weeks. Another clear priority is to stop Livermore Lab’s development of a new warhead with novel design features intended to replace the land-based W-78. Called the W87-1, Livermore is developing the warhead to include an untested plutonium pit (core) unlike any in the stockpile. This is pushing the bad policy decision to expand plutonium pit production. It is likewise a priority to turn that around in the coming year.

Locally, I hope that the “valley air board” will reject Livermore Lab’s permit application to conduct outdoor bomb tests at its Site 300 with 10-times more high explosive power than the Lab can presently use. These blasts would loft 121-listed hazardous materials into the open air.

Q: Who or what is your greatest inspiration to do the work that you do?

Wow, I have so many inspirations that I cannot fully answer this question in the allotted time or space. Always and forever, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is one of my guiding inspirations. I should also note that one of Tri-Valley CAREs early events involved a showing of Dr. Helen Caldicott’s video “If You Love This Planet.” Very inspiring! I am also inspired by all of my colleagues who work so hard and so creatively every day to change U.S. policy and create the foundation for a world without nuclear weapons. We are a team, and that inspires me every day. Finally, I remain inspired by a “meme” from way back in the day that envisioned grandchildren asking us, “Grandma, why did they used to have nuclear weapons?” This reminds me that nuclear weapons are crazy and irrational, and “Why?” is the logical question.


For more information about the awards reception, where we will also honor Kelly Campbell and Regna Merritt, Oregon PSR chapter leaders; the Sunrise Movement; and Dr. Helen Caldicott, recipient of PSR’s distinguished Lifetime Achievement Award, visit psr.org/visionaryleaders.