Priest Who Fires Nuclear Weapons Comes to Terms With a Double Life


As a nuclear test controller at the Nevada Test Site, Bob Nelson's job is to safely detonate the most powerful and horrifying weapons known to mankind.

As an ordained Episcopal priest, he prays that the nuclear weapons which could obliterate life as it is known today never meet their intended use.

Although other priests may lead protesters demonstrating against nuclear weapons, Nelson leads the teams of workers and scientists who actually explode the weapons deep underground at the Nevada Test Site.

It's an unusual contradiction, Nelson admits, being "the only priest I know who fires nuclear weapons."

And it's one that forces him in some way almost every day to reconcile the differences between his occupation and his calling.

"There are no right or wrong answers," said Nelson, who firmly believes that nuclear weapons have played a role as a deterrent to war. "I would like to be in a situation where there are no nuclear weapons. But I would also like a situation where we maintain the system of freedom and justice we have in our country."

Nelson, deputy manager of Nevada operations for the Energy Department, is a veteran of the nuclear industry, beginning his career in the Navy with a stint on the staff of Adm. Hyman Rickover.

As one of three rotating test controllers at the Nevada Test Site, he has given the final authority for the detonation of more than 30 underground nuclear tests in the 1980s.

"People like to think you push a button to blow them up but there is no button," Nelson said. "It's all done by computers now."

A relative newcomer to the priesthood, the 48-year-old father of two said he cast aside earlier thoughts of becoming a priest, rationalizing the task to be impossible because of his commitments to his work and family.

But he finally heeded a bishop's advice that a true calling would not go away, and was ordained into the priesthood two years ago.

"The way God works, he just doesn't follow the rules at all," Nelson said. "With my family, work and other commitments, I thought becoming a priest was something that just couldn't happen."

Nelson, a lifelong Episcopalian, was nominated into the priesthood by the congregation at All Saints Episcopal Church under a church canon that allows the elevation of parishioners to priests in remote parishes.

It was the culmination of many years of work in the church, first in a Washington parish and later in Las Vegas.

"Bob is just an exceptional priest and a very humble person," said the Rev. Stewart C. Zabriskie, the church's Nevada bishop. "I wish I had more like him."

Nelson said he takes pains to separate his role as a priest from his job directing the testing of nuclear weapons. But he also believes his experiences in the weapons program have given him an insight into the everyday world that is useful in his role as a priest.

"I find I can do a different kind of job in that environment because I deal with a lot of real-world things here that perhaps the clergy who have been clergy for their whole careers don't see," he said.

Nelson doesn't shy away from defending his beliefs on continued nuclear testing and he is often asked to go before anti-nuclear groups and explain the government's position that nuclear testing is vital to the nation's security.

"I don't think in any of these discussions I change anybody's mind or they change mine, but we come away from honest and direct discussions the better for it," Nelson said. "The best comment I ever got from one anti-nuclear activist was, 'I don't agree with what you're doing, but I'm glad you're the one doing it.' "

Nick Aquilina, Nelson's boss and the manager of the sprawling nuclear testing facility, credits Nelson's honesty with allowing him to gain the respect of both his co-workers and the protesters on the other side of the fence.

"He's the kind of guy I'd admire and respect whether he worked for me or was on the other side," Aquilina said. "I believe he comes across in a very credible way because he's so honest. I've never second-guessed his motives on anything because he's always so honest."

Oddly enough, Nelson said, both he and groups that oppose nuclear testing have the same goal in mind--the elimination of nuclear weapons--but go about it in different ways.

"I'm always probably the first person to say I would like to see a world without nuclear weapons," he said. "But I would also like a situation where we maintain the system of freedom and justice in our country."

Zabriskie, who said the Episcopal Church has taken no firm stand on nuclear testing, said he views Nelson as a "bridge builder" who is able to communicate with both sides on an emotional issue.

"I think he's a peacemaker; I really do," Zabriskie said. "He takes a lot of risks and is very vulnerable when he stands up before the hostility of some people."

Nelson goes out of his way not to criticize anti-nuclear protesters who often congregate at the gates of the Nevada Test Site. Many, in fact, are his friends, including the wife of another Episcopal priest in Las Vegas.

Nelson and the priest's wife are founding board members and work closely together on a project to build a shelter for homeless women and children in the city.

"We just don't talk about nuclear weapons when we're working together," Nelson said. "She and I have the same ultimate aim. We'd both like not to have nuclear weapons. The difference is how we get there."

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