Sister Megan Rice, 84, was convicted of sabotaging the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant at Oak Ridge, TN, after she and two other protesters broke into the facility and vandalized the property with biblical passages and human blood. On Tuesday, Rice was sentenced to 35 months for her part, while protesters Greg Boertje-Obed, 58, and Michael Walli, 64, each received 62 months.
Rice hoped that U.S. District Judge Amul Thapar would show leniency in the sentencing, a term appropriate for her symbolic, non-violent protest. The protesters broke into the facility in 2012 to highlight the U.S. stockpile of nuclear weapons, which the trio believes to be immoral. The Y-12 plant holds the nation’s primary supply of bomb grade uranium and is involved with the maintaining, making, or dismantling of parts of every U.S. nuclear weapon.
The charges carry a maximum sentence of up to 30 years and the government asked that the protesters be given a sentence of between five and nine years. However, Rice was sentenced to 35 months despite already being held for nine months, a period the defense attorneys argued was sufficient for the crime. Boertje-Obed and Walli were given longer sentences because of their criminal history.
Defense lawyer Francis Lloyd argued that the three protesters were scapegoats for exposing the facility’s security flaws. Prosecutor Jeff Theodore responded by arguing that 9/11 exposed similar flaws in airport security, but that did not make it beneficial to the U.S.
Theodore added that the protesters’ intent was clear since they carried materials into the building with the purpose of vandalizing the facility. He also pointed out that the three protesters were entering a kill zone where guards are allowed to shoot to kill, emphasizing that the trio are lucky to be alive.
Prior to the sentencing, all three of the protesters testified, expressing that they had no remorse for breaking into the facility and that they were pleased with reaching one of the most secure areas. Officials claimed that there was never a threat of the protesters reaching materials that could be used to make a bomb. Nevertheless, U.S. District Judge Amul Thapar expressed concern over the protesters’ lack of remorse, and issued the punishment as a deterrent for other activists.
The three protesters broke into the Y-12 facility on July 28, 2012, cutting through multiple fences before reaching the storage bunker. There they hung banners and crime-scene tape, and splashed human blood on the bunker walls. At the trial, Boertje-Obed said the blood was meant to represent the blood of children that was spilled because of nuclear weapons. On the walls they wrote, “The fruit of justice is peace.”
The protesters spent over two hours inside restricted areas of the facility, despite setting off alarms. When officers eventually arrived they found the protesters singing. Some government officials praised the protesters, pointing out the need for a security overhaul. After the break-in, security officers were retrained and officials replaced the security contractors.
The U.S. currently has 65 commercially operating nuclear power plants with 104 nuclear reactors in 31 states. The 35 month sentence for Rice, and 62 months given to her cohorts, should serve as a reminder to the Department of Energy that security must always be vigilant.
By David Tulis