In a former soybean field in southern Kansas City, Missouri, the nation's first privately owned facility for building nuclear-bomb components is under construction. Within the year, Honeywell Federal Manufacturing & Technologies plans to move its operation from the aging Bannister Federal Complex to the new Kansas City Responsive Infrastructure, Manufacturing & Sourcing campus at 14500 Botts Road.
Ground was broken for the 1.5-million-square-foot facility in September 2010. But the start of that day's ceremony was delayed for 10 minutes when members of the Kansas City Peace Planters blocked three luxury buses that were carrying dignitaries, including then Kansas City Mayor Mark Funkhouser and U.S. Reps. Emanuel Cleaver, Ike Skelton and Sam Graves. Eight anti-nuclear-weapons activists were arrested. It was the first skirmish between plant supporters and peace activists. And it won't be the last.
The Peace Planters argued that the city shouldn't support or help finance a factory that would produce even non-nuclear components for nuclear weapons. Elected officials claimed that the plant would keep 2,100 high-paying jobs in Kansas City — along with $1.7 million in annual earnings-tax revenue — and create 1,500 construction jobs.
"It will be built somewhere, and it ought to be built in Kansas City," Funkhouser said at the time.
The Bannister Federal Complex structure was simple: The feds owned the plant, and Honeywell operated it.
The new plant's ownership structure, however, is nothing short of dizzying:
• Kansas City's Planned Industrial Expansion Authority (PIEA) owns the plant and the land it is on.
• Real-estate company CenterPoint Zimmer will lease the plant from the PIEA.
• The General Services Administration will sublease the plant from CenterPoint Zimmer.
• The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) will sub-sublease the plant from the GSA.
• Honeywell, a federal contractor with a contract to build weapons, will operate the plant as it does the Bannister Federal Complex, producing electronic systems and upgrading weapons.
After the 25-year lease between PIEA and CenterPoint Zimmer expires, the city agency will transfer the title to CenterPoint, eliminating any government ownership. If the NNSA then extends its lease with CenterPoint, the plant would become the first privately owned site for building components for nuclear weapons. Given Bannister's longevity — the Navy built the complex in 1943 to make fighter planes, and in 1949 it was repurposed to create systems and parts for the U.S. nuclear arsenal — extensions appear likely. The federal government also has an option to buy the plant, but GSA spokeswoman Angela M. Brees says there are no plans to purchase the facility.
A Honeywell press release says the contractor will begin its 19-month moving process January 23, 2013.The GSA will follow Honeywell out of Bannister in late 2014. That's when the GSA plans to move more than 1,000 employees from the aging campus to a leased office space in downtown Kansas City, Missouri. The move will finally end the federal government's involvement with the historic site, whose role in World War II and the Cold War has been overshadowed in recent years by illnesses and deaths of hundreds of employees thought to have been poisoned by toxins while working there. The NNSA hopes to sell Bannister to a private developer.
The plant's private ownership is drawing both ire and bewilderment from experts. Richard Rhodes, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his classic The Making of the Atomic Bomb, says the ownership arrangement is an aberration in the history of the military-industrial complex. While many American companies make fortunes by selling arms, Rhodes says private ownership of a nuclear plant is a novel idea.
"That is the most curious arrangement," Rhodes tells The Pitch.
Kansas City becoming home to the nation's first privately owned nuke plant required a confusing chain of leasing agreements, city bonds, and bids with the federal government.
CenterPoint Zimmer — a collaboration of two real-estate agencies, Kansas City's Zimmer Real Estate Services LLC and Illinois' CenterPoint Properties — won a 2009 bidding process with the GSA to build the new plant.
Meanwhile, the PIEA, a quasi-municipal agency set up to improve blighted parts of the city, took title of the plant's future site, a soybean field on Botts Road.
The city of Kansas City, Missouri, issued $687 million in bonds to raise money for the project. The GSA's rent will flow through CenterPoint Zimmer and ultimately be used to pay off the PIEA bonds.
Then the GSA, a federal agency that, among other responsibilities, finds office space for government entities, agreed to a 20-year sublease with CenterPoint Zimmer. (Rent is set at $61,558,772 a year, totaling $1.23 billion over the life of the deal.)
The GSA then sub-subleased the plant to the NNSA, a semiautonomous agency under the Department of Energy. A September 2010 press release from the NNSA only hinted at the unique relationship between the federal government and CenterPoint Zimmer: "The new campus of buildings ... is a private facility being leased to the federal government."
Rhodes hadn't heard of the plant's ownership structure until asked about it by The Pitch. Rhodes says tethering the local economy to defense spending may be foolish, given the reduction in the U.S. nuclear arsenal. (In 2010, the United States had 5,113 warheads, down from 22,217 in 1989 and 31,225 in 1967.)
Wichita learned the hard way, earlier this year, when Boeing's defense unit pulled a tanker-assembly operation from that city. Boeing cited a reduction in defense spending for eliminating 2,100 Kansas jobs.
Rhodes suggests a better investment would be in civilian manufacturing.
"There have been good economic plans for the conversion of military industries to peaceful industries for a long time," Rhodes says.
With jobs at stake, Rhodes understands why it's politically untenable to let Honeywell and the NNSA leave town. Still, he says, "It's sad that Kansas City, for the sake of 2,100 jobs, bought into the whole deal."
Kansas City officials and the federal government should have known that building a modern facility to make parts for nuclear weapons would start a war.
Councilman Ed Ford, who serves the 2nd District at large, has been fighting the plant for almost four years, but the project has few opponents in local government. He says he could support a plant for just about anything but bomb parts.
"If they were widgets, I'd be fine with it," says Ford, who describes himself as "somewhat of a pacifist."
Ford, a Catholic who belongs to Holy Family Catholic Church, says his faith has partly fueled his opposition to the Kansas City Plant. (That faith also led him to be a conscientious objector during the waning days of the Vietnam War draft.)
"I did not want to be in the chain," he says. "If we ever used one of these bombs, I could not have lived with myself."
Last year, the Kansas City Peace Planters gathered almost 5,000 signatures to certify a ballot measure that would ban the city from hosting any plant that produces components for nuclear weapons.
In August, the City Council refused to put the measure on the ballot, citing "conflicts with the constitutional power of the federal government to provide for the national defense."
After the council blocked the initiative, the Peace Planters filed a lawsuit to overturn the decision. However, the group decided to drop the lawsuit and focus instead on getting two measures on the ballot for the August 7, 2012, primary.
The first measure would bar the city from owning or being financially tied to nuclear-weapon facilities. The initiative would require the city to "divest itself as soon as reasonably feasible of current municipal bonds which finance or subsidize" nuclear-weapon facilities. The second and less controversial measure would require the city to develop a contingency plan for the plant site if the plant ceases producing parts for weapons. The Peace Planters want the plant to work on environmentally friendly manufacturing.
The city clerk certified both measures January 3, but there's no guarantee that the initiatives will make it onto the ballot.
Rachel MacNair, the Peace Planters' petition coordinator, says the peace group is devoted to preventing a single bomb part from being built at the plant.
"We're hoping that they never contaminate the new location by starting to make new nuclear-weapons parts," she says.
If the Peace Planters succeed, Kansas City will be out of the bomb-making business for the first time since the Cold War.
MacNair anticipates a nasty political battle if the measures are placed on the ballot.
"They [plant proponents] will trounce us on advertising because they can take out of their pocket change 10 times what we will be able to do," she says. "But we will trounce them on person-to-person contact."
MacNair and the Peace Planters are confident of public support after successful ballot drives in back-to-back years.
John Sharp, councilman for the 6th District, where the plant is being constructed, has publicly expressed doubt that the first measure will make it to a vote.
The Pitch requested comments from every City Council member, including Sharp, about why the plant is good for Kansas City. Only 1st District Councilman Dick Davis responded.
"This decision is one I support," Davis wrote in an e-mail. "I also feel that if the decision results in good jobs for Kansas Citians, I fully support keeping them in Kansas City."
In a statement to The Pitch, Congressman Cleaver reiterated his support for the plant. "We all hope the weapons built at the campus will never be used. I have not abandoned my peacenik persona, but I do not think the United States should be vulnerable militarily," he wrote. "Unjust war is incompatible with the teachings and examples in my faith tradition, and I have opposed the wars and conflicts in recent history. However, until the day the United States military believes there is no longer a need for these parts, the professionals here in Kansas City are proud to help keep our nation safe."
The City Council has until March 1 to approve or reject the measures for the August 7 ballot.
MacNair and the Peace Planters have gone on the offensive, launching a new website (foolish-investment.com) and putting up billboards. At Truman Road South and Main and at Broadway and 39th Street, images of mushroom clouds hang over motorists.
MacNair says if the City Council bans these measures, the Peace Planters will be ready to engage the city in a lengthy legal battle.
"We will litigate it," she says. "We have raised the money to be able to fund the litigation."
Despite the Peace Planters' optimism, Ford is resigned that nuclear-weapon production will remain part of the Kansas City economy. Ford isn't raising a white flag just yet, but with the leases signed and construction on schedule, the machinery can't be stopped, he says.
"Even if they both get on [the ballot] and pass, I don't think it will impact this," he says. "It's a done deal."