An 83-year-old Roman Catholic nun and two other activists are on trial in Tennessee this week for what the New York Times called the biggest security breach in the history of the nation’s atomic complex.
Court proceedings began Tuesday in Knoxville, TN for Sister Megan Rice and two other members of the Transform Now Plowshares, an anti-nuke protest group that is charged with crimes related to the July 28, 2012 break-in of the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.
Prosecutors have charged Rice, 57-year-old Greg Boertje-Obed and Michael Walli, 64, under the Sabotage Act for trespassing on the protected site where the United States stores a significant portion of its enriched uranium supply used in weapons making. If convicted, the charge carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.
The three defendants willfully admit to their actions last summer but insist on exercising their right to a trial. They were initially charged with destroying property within the complex, depredation against property of the United States in an amount exceeding $1,000 and trespassing onto US Department of Energy property. After refusing a plea deal, though, prosecutors tacked on the sabotage count of injuring national-defense premises last December.
“We chose to exercise our constitutional right to a jury trial and refused to bow down to their threats,” the trio said last year before the charges were upgraded. “We remain convinced that making and refurbishing nuclear weapons at Y-12 is both illegal under US and international law, and it is also immoral. Ultimately, we are required to follow the law of love and our consciences.”
When the Sabotage Act charge was tacked on in late 2012, the defendants issued a statement saying, "Our consciences compelled us to act at Y-12 Oak Ridge nuclear facility because we knew that the nuclear weapons of mass destruction illegal produced there threaten the well-being of our entire planet.”
"They are innocent of all these charges and feel that everything they did was legal and moral, and I think they believe that this (new charge) is ridiculous,” defense attorney Bill Quigley told Huffington Post of his clients after the December indictment was unsealed.
Prosecutors said the defendants cut through a fence at the Y-12 facility last year and then spent roughly two hours walking the premises, spray-painting slogans and vandalizing the walls of buildings using hammers and human blood.
Speaking to the New York Times last August, Sister Megan Rice blamed “the criminality of this 70-year industry” on her case. “We spend more on nuclear arms than on the departments of education, health, transportation, disaster relief and a number of other government agencies that I can’t remember.”
After the trespass, though, spending has only gone up at Y-12. Despite being called the nuclear sector’s equivalent of Fort Knox, three protesters with an average age just shy of 70 had no problem entering the site last year and going undetected for hours, allegedly causing $70,000 in damage during that time. A federal spokesman for the site later told The News Sentinel that the government spent $15 million in direct costs following the breach, largely on "modifications to the PIDAS (perimeter intrusion, detection and assessment system), with the installation of additional concertina wire and animal fencing, physical security upgrades -- such as additional sensors and cameras -- and additional personnel and miscellaneous costs." After the breach, an Energy Department inspector general wrote of finding "troubling displays of ineptitude" at the complex and a handful of local officials were reassigned.