Y-12 protestors receive lengthy prison terms from judge

In a three-day trial in May 2013, Rice, a Sister of the Holy Child Jesus, Walli, a gardener, and Boertje-Obed, a house painter, were all found guilty of two felony charges brought against them. Prosecutors Theodore and Melissa M. Kirby provided six witnesses, including the Y-12 plant manager who had only been on the job for ten days, the head of security, and the two guards who found the defendants standing next to the Highly Enriched Uranium Materials Facility (HEUMF) building at Y-12. The HEUMF warehouses an estimated 400 tons of uranium and plutonium.

In order to reach the HEUMF, the three cut through four fences and escaped detection by security guards authorized to use lethal force, and by ground sensors, sophisticated surveillance cameras, and other security equipment which were a part of the Perimeter Intrusion Detection and Assessment System (PIDAS), a security system described by Y-12 as “…the most stringent security system in the world.”B&W Technical Services Y-12 and Wackenhutt, Inc., were paid an estimated $150 million per year to provide security at Y-12. Bechtel, Inc., is a 49 percent partner with B&W.

The prosecution witnesses each described the damage done by the three defendants, including shutting down Y-12 for two weeks, as well as the defendants’ damage to the national defense at Y-12.

Defense lawyers Christopher Scott Irwin and William P. Quigley called only one witness, Sister Megan Rice. On the stand Sister Rice detailed her fifty years working to educate young women in Africa, her two-decade history of peace protest at nuclear plants, and her reasons for protesting at Y-12 as a part of the Transform Plowshares Now peace movement. After explaining why she and the two other defendants brought five bibles, candles, a loaf of bread, and other symbolic objects to the HEUMF, Sister Rice read a two-page manifesto they also carried with them and had presented to the guards.

A subsequent Department of Energy special report on the breach at Y-12 cited inoperable security equipment, an inadequate security force, no timetables for the maintenance of security equipment, and lack of physical barriers as major reasons why the security system was successfully penetrated three peace activists. Prior government reports, including one by the Government Accountability Office, emphasized there had been more than ten years of serious security and safety problems at various sites managed by the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), including Y-12. The reports described a “culture of complacency” among employees at Y-12 with regard to both security and safety issues.

After the breach at Y-12 the contract for security was given to B&W, Inc. Several corporate executives either resigned or were fired. One guard, Kirk Garland, was also fired but in testimony at the trial he was exonerated of any malfeasance.

Reactions among those who attended both the trial and the sentencing — the overflow was directed to an additional courtroom where the proceedings were watched on a large screen — were favorable to the defendants. Many in the crowd had travelled long distances to hear the sentences and are members of Transform Plowshares Now.

Robert Lee Maril, a professor of Sociology at East Carolina University, is the author of The Fence: National Security, Public Safety, and Illegal Immigration along the U.S.-Mexico Border. He blogs at leemaril.com.