Home / News / 82-year-old nun breaks in and shuts down a nuclear plant
82-year-old nun breaks in and shuts down a nuclear plant

82-year-old nun breaks in and shuts down a nuclear plant

Sister Megan Rice, the 82-year-old nun, from Nevada and alleged leader out of two others who allegedly broke into the Oak Ridge Nuclear Plant, a highly enriched uranium weapons fuel storage facility, last week, goes to a detention hearing on Friday and trial on October 9.  The three are part of a group, which calls themselves the “Transform Now Plowshares” and the other two accompanying Sister Rice were identified as Michael R. Walli, 63, Washington, D.C. and Greg Boertje-Obed, 57, of Duluth, Minnesota.  Law officials charged the three with criminal trespassing and vandalism.

She and the two men broke into the Oak Ridge facility, which houses the nation's primary source of bomb grade uranium, in the early hours of July 28th and reached the “heavily guarded” nuclear storage facility, spraying human blood and painting anti-war messages on the wall of the facility.

The targeted facility was built in 2010, Wyatt said. It is longer than a football field and was built with security in mind. Additionally, Y-12 employs more than 500 security officers.

Plowshare posted on their website, prior to the break in of the nuclear facility at Oakridge, “The use of blood was meant to "[remind] us of the horrific spilling of blood by nuclear weapons.”  The use of blood is their trademark and they first used it on September 9, 1980 at the General Electric missile facility at King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, in which they poured it on files and documents, as well as damaged the nose cones on a couple of nuclear warheads under development at the facility.

"We come to the Y-12 facility because our very humanity rejects the designs of nuclearism, empire and war," the statement said. "Our faith in love and nonviolence encourages us to believe that our activity here is necessary; that we come to invite transformation, undo the past and present work of Y-12; disarm and end any further efforts to increase the Y-12 capacity for an economy and social structure based upon war-making and empire-building."

According to Nuclear News, the three were in the facility for several hours and painted the words “Woe to the empire of blood” and “the fruit of justice is peace” on the exterior of Y-12’s Highly-Enriched Uranium Manufacturing Facility, and splashed what they said was human blood.  When a lone guard, according to Rice and friends, stopped them they three were using candles and a Bible for a Christian peace ceremony.  Steven Wyatt, a spokesman for the National Nuclear Security Administration, questions reports which state that the three were in the facility for two hours.

Guards, who had orders to shoot to kill, arrested the three shortly after they sprayed blood and spray painted anti-war messages on the walls of the facility.

A spokesman for the facility told ABC News, “You have to be a little concerned when it’s an octogenarian nun who helps you understand your nuclear weaknesses in security.”

Ralph Hutchinson, coordinator for the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance, called what the nun and two men did a war crime and not meant to demonstrate a lack of security.

The Oak Ridge nuclear facility was built after September 11, 2001 with a modern security system, but the three did not disturb the contents inside the facility.  They did not even reach the inside of the building, according to officials.  Still, those working at the facility stated they are taking the break in by the nun and her comrades very seriously.

'We're taking this very, very seriously,' added Steve Wyatt, a spokesman for the NNSA office in Oak Ridge, which supervises the activities of Y-12 contractors.

The three broke in by cutting the barbwires and various fences with bolt cutters, sneaking past armed guards and security cameras.  Three also possessed flashlights, hammers, and spray paint as they crawled under some fences and through various areas of the facility, setting off alarms, before reaching the wall they sprayed with blood and paint.  The guards allegedly did not jump to attention because they became accustom to various animals triggering the alarms.  Some of the video cameras did not work properly, if at all.

Word of the camera problem has been circulating in Washington. “That site is storing one of the largest amounts of nuclear explosive material in the world,” Robert Alvarez, a former policy adviser to the Energy Department, said in an interview. “It’s not rocket science to maintain and repair video cameras,” Mr. Alvarez noted.

“It’s supposed to be one of the world’s most secure facilities,” he said.

Energy Secretary Steven Chu called the breach “unacceptable and deeply troubling.” In a statement on Friday, he said nuclear operations at Oak Ridge had been shut down pending an investigation, and that he had ordered a reassessment of security “at all of our sensitive sites.”

Officials shutdown the facility after the three were arrested, suspended the guards working that night, the general manager of the security contractor and two supervisors were reassigned and patrols were more than doubled.  Workers of the facility removed the nuclear weapons fuel to a facility in Texas while the facility was shutdown.

Because the guards have orders to shoot to kill, Wyatt stated, “The protesters put themselves at a high risk of losing their life in performing this act.  We are thankful that did not occur.”

Sister Rice, a peace activist and pacifist, protested in various ways against nuclear facilities many times before and arrested 40 or 50 times for acts of civil disobedience, as well as served a six-month prison sentence.

In the Nevada Desert she protested by kneeling down in the middle of road to block a truck heading to a government test site.  The authorities arrested her and her fellow sisters, whom Rice said came at them with guns and treated them as though they were criminals.

She, free on bail, calls the nuclear facilities and testing of weapons “the issues” and told New York Times this week in an interview, “It’s the criminality of this 70-year industry.  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.”

Sister Rice is no geopolitical strategist. But her bold acts and articulate fervor highlight how the antinuclear movement has evolved since the end of the cold war. They also illustrate the fierce independence of Catholic nuns, who met this week in St. Louis to decide how to respond to aVatican appraisal that cast them as rebellious dissenters.

“We’re free as larks,” Sister Rice said of herself and her older religious friends. “We have no responsibilities — no children, no grandchildren, no jobs.”

“So the lot fell on us,” she said of fighting nuclear arms. “We can do it. But we all do share the responsibility equally.”

William C. Killian, a United States attorney, who takes a different view, told reporters that this is a significant case, because it is a matter of security.

As for her childhood, Sister Rice came from a well-educated Catholic family and described her mother as no different than she is concerning interracial marriage.

Megan Gillespie Rice was born in Manhattan on Jan. 31, 1930, the youngest of three girls in a Catholic family. Her father was an obstetrician who taught at New York University and treated patients at Bellevue Hospital. Her mother received a doctorate from Columbia University in history, writing her dissertation on Catholic views about slavery.

In the oral history, by the University of Nevada, Sister Rice portrayed her mother as strongly in favor of interracial marriage. “I just can’t wait,” she quoted her mother as saying, “until everybody in the world is tan!”

In the 80s, her mother sometimes accompanied her to various nuclear protests and her order would sometimes give her permission to protest nuclear sites. However, sources gave no indication her order gave her permission to break into the Oak Ridge nuclear facility.

Jim Haber, the group’s coordinator of the current protest, stated that Sister Rice is the kind of person who would risk her life to protect others.

Concerning the six months Rice served in prison previously, she said, “It was a great eye-opener.  When you’ve had a prison experience, it minimizes your needs very much.”

Sister Rice also stated that her aim, with the most recent protest at Oak Ridge, was to draw attention to nuclear work.

After their break in, the protesters released an indictment, accusing the United States of committing crimes against humanity.  Within their indictment, the protesters said that Oak Ridge will receive billions of dollars in federal money for continuing nuclear weapons production.  By the middle of the century, the protesters figured the facility will create an arsenal of over 3000 nuclear weapons.

“Oak Ridge Y-12 is slated to receive more than $6.5 billion in federal funding over the next decade for continuing nuclear weapons production.  The new Uranium Processing Facility is expected to sustain a nuclear arsenal of 3000-3500 weapons beyond the middle of the century.  Additional production facilities are sought as well.  Instead of eliminating nuclear weaponry, Oak Ridge Y-12 perpetuates it through the nuclear modernization program.”

Federal prosecutors charged them with trespassing on government property, which is a misdemeanour, as well as two felony charges, destruction and depredation of government property.  The two felony each carry penalties of up to 16 years in prison and fines of up to $600,000.  All three protesters plead not guilty to the charges, but if the judge finds them guilty of the charges, s/he might allow them to serve the time concurrently, thus making their stay in prison only five years.

“She’s a pretty sympathetic character,” Ralph Hutchison, coordinator of the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance, said of the nun. “Sixteen years would be signing her death warrant.”

Sister Rice plans to leave Knoxville on Saturday for the Catholic Worker residence in Washington and commute to the trial from there.

She called her life privileged. “I’ve sort of fallen heir to it,” she told the interviewer from the University of Nevada. “I’m grateful.”

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About Mriana

Mriana is a humanist and the author of "A Source of Misery", who grew up in the Church of God, Anderson Indiana. After she became an adult, she joined the Episcopal Church, but later left the Church and became a humanist. She has two grown sons and raises cats. Mriana raised her sons in the Episcopal Church, but in their teen years, they left the Church and she soon followed. One of her sons became a "Tao Buddhist" and the other a None, creating his own world view. She enjoys writing, reading, science, philosophy, psychology, and other subjects. Mriana is also an animal lover, who cares for their welfare as living beings, who are part of the earth. She is a huge Star Trek fan in a little body.
  • That took guts! Esp at the age of 80-plus. Now that is on nun I can get behind and appreciate! I've always said, if you're going to go to jail, do it right and for something you stand for and this woman did! GO SISTER! *Mriana holds head down meekly* I couldn't do what she did.

    • Deborah_B

      The Catholic nuns are really taking a stand for humanity of late. This is quite a story.

      • That's what I thought too and they're even standing up to the pope too.

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