Sixty-nine anti-nuclear demonstrators, including some from Orange County and other parts of California, were arrested Friday after blocking Interstate 95 near the Nevada underground nuclear test site.
A Department of Energy spokesman said it was the first time protesters had blocked the interstate that skirts the edge of the a1,350-square-mile facility.
“It is unusual, and it’s dangerous too,” said DOE spokesman Derek Scammell, noting that drivers on the open stretch of highway often accelerate their vehicles to speeds of 70 m.p.h. “Out there in the desert, people put their foot on the pedal and go.”
Nevada Highway Patrol Capt. Glenn Jewett said 69 people were cited on charges of being a public nuisance and then were released on their own recognizance.
Authorities said they expected larger anti-nuclear protests today and Sunday.
Protests at the test site have become a rite of spring in Mercury, a small town 68 miles north of Las Vegas. This year the demonstrations are timed to coincide with colleges’ spring break and the Christian observance of Lent.
As protesters blocked the road shortly after sunrise Friday, they chanted “No More Testing” and “No More War.”
Chuck Rundgren, 41, an accountant from Laguna Niguel who was among those taken into custody, said he has been coming to Mercury for three years and has been arrested a dozen times.
“You ask me why I’m out here. My question is, ‘Why isn’t everyone out here?’ ” he said. “I don’t know if this does any good. But if I don’t come, I can’t do any good.”
Rundgren, a Vietnam veteran, was among those calling for an end to all nuclear testing at the site.
Robert Myers, Santa Monica’s city attorney, sat cross-legged near the highway’s center line as he explained why he devoted vacation time to attend the protest.
“I think this type of direct people action can (send) a very powerful message that we want change,” Myers said. He cited the successes of the civil rights movement and the recent overthrow of Communist regimes in Eastern Europe as examples of governments responding to public outcry.
Like Rundgren, Myers said he wants an end to the underground nuclear testing that has become common in the Nevada desert. The most recent test of a nuclear device at the site came two weeks ago.
About 100 demonstrators lined the highway as authorities moved to clear those sitting in the road. But as police hauled away those blocking the road, protesters who authorities had already pulled to the side ran back onto the highway.
And when police had nearly all of them in custody, a dozen other protesters split off, ran half a mile south along the highway and sat down amid the stalled traffic.
“It’s the only way,’ said Kathleen Eiswala of San Diego.
The protesters flashed peace signs at passing motorists when traffic finally began to move.
Authorities estimate that about 700 people are camping about a mile from the site. The number of protesters is expected to swell to about 4,000 by late today.. The majority of the demonstrators are students, including contingents from UC Irvine and UC Santa Cruz.
The Irvine students plan a separate demonstration today to protest the University of California’s involvement in the manufacture of nuclear weapons at the Los Alamos and Livermore labs.
“We have a direct issue to work on,” said Kate Sullivan, 19, a UC Irvine sophomore.
“I simply think we must try,” added Joetta Moon, 25, a UC Irvine graduate.
Groups of high school students, including a contingent from Venice High School, are expected to arrive today as well.
This year’s weekend of protests is expected to be smaller than in the past, and authorities are keeping a lower profile in guarding the area. The 1988 protests drew about 8,000 people, organizers said.
But some demonstrators say the blockade indicates an increase in their level of intensity.
“The ante goes up every year,” Laguna Niguel resident Rundgren said. “The level of confrontation goes up every year too. But it’s always nonviolent.”