Will prison time for nun who breached nuclear complex deter activists?

Anti-nuclear weapons activists Sister Megan Rice, Michael Walli, center, and Greg Boertje-Obed in Knoxville, Tenn.
Anti-nuclear weapons activists Sister Megan Rice, Michael Walli, center, and Greg Boertje-Obed in Knoxville, Tenn.
(Saul Young / Associated Press)

Praise has continued to pour in for an 84-year-old nun and two other Catholic activists who were sentenced to prison this week for embarrassing the U.S. government two years ago by breaking into a nuclear weapons complex in Tennessee.

Trying to draw attention to the immorality of nuclear weapons, Megan Rice, 58-year-old Greg Boertje-Obed and 64-year-old Michael Walli cut through several rings of fences at the Y-12 National Security Complex and sprayed blood on a uranium storage facility. They sat for two hours before authorities arrested them.

They each faced up to 20 years in prison after being convicted of defacing government property and attempting to sabotage national security. On Tuesday, Rice was sentenced to nearly three years in prison and Boertje-Obed and Walli each to more than five years.


They exposed a long-told lie that the nuclear facility was the “Ft. Knox of uranium” because of its impenetrable security, said Chris Irwin, an attorney for Walli.

“These tree huggers should have been rewarded with medals, not punished,” Irwin told the Los Angeles Times. “This case shows it’s dangerous to tell the emperor he has no clothes.”

The judge in Rice’s case said he had to balance her age with the need to send a message to other activists. He suggested they could have lobbied for policy changes through the political process rather than acting out. He also noted that all of the defendants had previous convictions and prison stints.

But Irwin said that in deterring nonviolent civil disobedience, the judge was questioning the actions of civil rights leaders half a century ago.

“The only people who went to prison in Tennessee were the whistle-blowers,” he said.

Although Rice reportedly said she was fine with whatever sentence was imposed, her attorney had sought leniency.

“Her conduct in this case was motivated by her unshakable conviction, based on her studied and devoted ... Christian principles of nonviolence, that nuclear is inescapably evil,” attorney Francis Lloyd argued in a sentencing memo.


“Those who share Rice’s belief in a moral imperative to end nuclear weaponry, and in the superiority of that imperative over any law promulgated by humans, are going to act in obedience to that moral imperative regardless of the punishment on Rice,” he said.

At issue, the attorneys argued and the judge noted, was the fact that the law doesn’t separate terrorists from activists.

Lloyd told The Times that the rare charge under the Sabotage Act, rather than a misdemeanor trespassing charge, might be a strong deterrent in itself, regardless of the sentence.

“Neither the prosecution or the defense could give a precise answer with what will deter those who have strongly held convictions,” he said.

Fellow activist Ellen Barfield said she listened with amusement as the judge “dithered for hours” about how long of a sentence would deter supporters.

“The answer, of course, is it’s not possible because we are deeply concerned about the criminality of the U.S. government,” Barfield told The Times on Wednesday. “They promised to get rid of these nuclear weapons in the 1970s, and they haven’t made progress much toward it.”


She said the sentenced trio knew their mission was risky, but that they also knew that ignoring the manufacturing of nuclear weapons could be far more disastrous.

Barfield said they do utilize the political process. For example, more than 15,000 people from a network of supporters wrote letters asking the judge to be lenient.

“Unfortunately, the system and our government isn’t always listening, and once in a while, it takes a shock to the system to change that,” she said.

Advocates for disarmament remain disappointed by the lack of prosecution for the contractors that managed the Y-12 nuclear facility. Federal officials ordered several upgrades to the Oak Ridge, Tenn., complex in the wake of the break-in. They also fired a security contractor and have moved to replace the company that manages operations.

“Private corporations that are always going to cut costs and fancy, broken equipment will never be as good as boots on the ground,” Irwin said, referring to the need to have the military secure the facility.

Casting doubt on the security changes, he said the joke in Oak Ridge is, “What’s the difference between the defensive lines of Y-12 and the University of Tennessee [football team]? Neither can stop an 82-year-old nun from penetrating.”


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