Behind the Longreads: Dan Zak on the Nun and the Nukes

We asked Washington Post reporter Dan Zak how he stumbled upon “The Prophets of Oak Ridge.” Here’s his account:

“This story happened because a generous colleague, Dana Priest, pitched it downstairs to my area of the newsroom. She had finished a series on the country’s aging nuclear arsenal and a shorter news story on security lapses at the site in question, and she thought this nun might make a good feature story. So I started to report it out, because how could I not? A nun? Nukes? Sign me up.

“In October I had lunch with Sister Megan in Rosemont, Pa., where she was convalescing after wrist surgery, and I was kind of spun around by the precise way she lives: With utter intent and compassion. What had been billed as a kind of Keystone Cops episode (old folks bumbling into a nuclear facility) took on this new, almost primal logic in my mind after talking with her. After reading the transcript of a confounding congressional hearing on the break-in and having long phone chats with the activists’ lawyer about the legal knots of the case, I started envisioning a broader, longer piece that would attempt to wrap its arms around the past, present and future of the country’s nuclear identity—and all the legal, bureaucratic and theological complications therein.

“By the end of January, when I called the security guard who was first to respond to their intrusion, I knew that the story was riddled with paradox but felt like a classic, simple parable. The trick was to narrate the parable without sacrificing the nuance or paradox that governs the real world. I’m not sure I was successful, but I thought it was worth a shot.”

Read the story here.

(Photo by Jonathan Newton/Washington Post)