Championing Responsible National Security Policy

Y-12 Protestors “Destroyed the Mystique” of Nuclear Security

The Transform Now Plowshares, a group led by nun Megan Rice which made headlines for breaking into the Y-12 Nuclear Complex to protest the production of nuclear weapons, was sentenced yesterday. Sister Megan Rice will spend two years and eleven months behind bars; her two fellow activists each got five years and two months due to their history of protest-related arrests.

In July 2012, then-82-year-old Sister Megan Rice; Michael Walli, a 64-year-old Vietnam veteran; and Greg Boertje-Obed, a 57-year-old house painter and longtime nuclear protestor exposed a troubling lack of security at the Y-12 site. The group easily made it undetected through the zone where deadly force is authorized, and managed to protest for several minutes right outside the building where approximately 400 metric tons of highly enriched uranium is stored before guards arrived at the scene.

Nine months after their break in, the members of Transform Now Plowshares were found guilty of two felony charges—damaging over $1,000-worth of government property, and obstructing the national defense, which is a “sabotage” charge and is considered a violent crime. Yesterday the activists were sentenced at a five-hour-long hearing. Although all three sentences were shorter than the government’s recommended sentencing range, they will each face years of jail time and three years of supervised probation when they are released.

Sister Megan Rice told the judge in her closing statement: “Please have no leniency with me. To remain in prison for the rest of my life would be the greatest honor for me.” Although we applaud her commitment to her mission, we agree with U.S. District Judge Amul Thapar that her efforts will be better served if she can continue to lead the charge here in Washington rather than from her jail cell, and we are pleased that she will be able to do so.

Judge Thapar carefully considered a punishment that would deter others from attempting such dangerous protests in the future, but was sympathetic to the intent behind the crime. He asked prosecutors to demonstrate how these activists actually caused harm. The best that Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeff Theodore could come up with was that they “had destroyed the ‘mystique’ of the ‘Fort Knox of uranium.’”

If the Department of Energy was relying mainly on mystique and reputation to protect dangerous nuclear material, it’s no wonder that an 82-year-old nun and two other activists were able to walk right in. These protestors may have destroyed that “mystique,” but they were also able to expose a very serious security threat without hurting anyone, and without significantly disrupting national security activities. Now Y-12 and the Energy Department claim they’ve renewed their focus on ensuring robust security for our nuclear weapons and material.

Multiple reviews of the incident, including congressional hearings, an Inspector General report, and an independent review commission, found that a lack of federal oversight allowed a series of security problems at Y-12 to cumulate. Furthermore, after the break-in, the Energy Department conducted security tests at nuclear weapons sites across the country, but almost immediately after the tests were completed the Department of Energy Inspector General found the Y-12 guard force had cheated.

As the Department of Energy continues to get its nuclear house in order, it is important to remember that these three protestors quietly and non-violently showed the Department exactly what needs to be fixed so that those who don’t have the country’s best interests at heart never get their chance.

Image from Transform Now Plowshares.