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.