Championing Responsible National Security Policy

Y-12 Protestors Exposed Security Failures, Found Guilty

Yesterday afternoon an 83-year-old nun and two other protestors who broke into the Y-12 National Security complex last July were found guilty of two felony charges. The three, collectively known as the Transform Now Plowshares, currently await sentencing in the Blount County Detention Center.

In the early morning of July 28, 2012, Sister Megan Rice; Michael Walli, a 64-year-old war veteran; and Greg Boertje-Obed, a 57-year-old house painter and longtime nuclear protestor, broke into the Y-12 facility to spray paint bible verses and splash human blood (that of activist Tom Lewis, whose blood was frozen upon his death so that he could participate in one last Plowshares protest) on the walls of the Highly Enriched Uranium Materials Facility (HEUMF). A culture of hands-off federal oversight allowed security problems at Y-12 to pile up so that the three protestors slipped virtually unnoticed past malfunctioning cameras and deficient compensatory measures, setting off alarms that the guards assumed to be false. The activists were able to make it through the zone where deadly force is authorized, and right up to the HEUMF, a building that contains approximately 400 metric tons of highly enriched uranium—enough bomb grade material for over 15,000 nuclear warheads—before being discovered by the Y-12 protective force.

Transform Now Plowshares were found guilty of damaging over $1,000 of government property at the Y-12 site as well as injuring, interfering with, or obstructing the national defense, a felony charge that falls under the “sabotage” section of the law and is considered a violent crime. Although the defense will move for acquittal on the sabotage charge, arguing that the prosecutors were not able to prove that the defendants intended to disrupt U.S. defense activities with their actions, the two felony charges carry a combined sentence of up to 30 years in prison for each activist.

The Project On Government Oversight has long been concerned about the security at the Y-12 facility. A history of cheating on security tests has done nothing to alleviate this concern over the years. But the July break-in revealed the full extent of the problems at Y-12 and initiated a series of in-depth reviews of security at nuclear facilities across the country.

A Department of Energy (DOE) Inspector General report about the break-in revealed “multiple system failures on several levels.” Former DOE Secretary Steven Chu commissioned three nuclear experts to examine security across the nuclear complex, each finding a disturbingly lax security oversight culture within the Department and the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA). Comprehensive security tests were performed at Y-12, but an additional DOE Inspector General report revealed that the protective force at Y-12 had yet again cheated.

Congressional committees have conducted multiple hearings over the last year to examine the causes and responses to this break-in, and the incident has been mentioned countless times in numerous other hearings. At the March 13, 2013, hearing Brigadier General Sandra E. Finan, former Acting Chief of Defense Nuclear Security, NNSA, testified about her study into the federal security organization and assessment model in which she found “significant deficiencies in security organization, oversight, and culture sustainment throughout the NNSA security organizations.”

These security reviews have demonstrated a clear need for change within the DOE and NNSA, and it seems that long-overdue attention is finally being paid to the recommendations of these experts. According to the Associated Press, Acting NNSA Administrator Neile Miller said at a May 8 Senate hearing on strategic forces, “The severity of the failure of leadership at Y-12 has demanded swift, strong and decisive action by the department. Since the Y-12 incursion, major actions have taken place to improve security immediately, and for the long term.”

Hopefully as the Transform Now Plowshares group faces sentencing, the judge will take into consideration both their peaceful intent and the spotlight that has since been put on Y-12 and the many security problems that have plagued the facility.