An elderly nun who broke into what was supposed to be one of the most carefully guarded nuclear facilities in the United States was sentenced to nearly three years in prison on Tuesday, local media reported.
Sister Megan Rice, 84, cut through fences and several layers of security at the Y-12 National Security Complex in Tennessee along with two other members of Transform Now Ploughshares, a pacifist group, in July 2012.
Even though their presence set off alarms, they spent two hours in the complex, defacing a US$548 million bunker holding bomb-grade uranium, before being caught by security guards.
In that time, they hoisted banners and crime-scene tape, spray-painted messages like “work for peace not war”, hammered off a small chunk of the facility, and tossed human blood from baby bottles on a building used to store and process the highly-enriched uranium used to make nuclear bombs.
When security finally arrived, guards found the three activists singing and offering to break bread with them. The protesters reportedly also offered to share a Bible, candles and white roses with the guards.
The incident prompted a congressional review of security at US nuclear facilities. The complex had to be shut down, security forces were retrained and contractors were replaced.
At a four-hour sentencing hearing, Rice, who has been held in jail since her conviction last year, urged the judge to impose a life sentence, even though sentencing guidelines called for about six years.
“Please have no leniency on me,” the Tennesse newspaper quoted Rice as saying. “To remain in prison for the rest of my life would be the greatest honour you could give me.”
Although officials claimed there was never any danger of the protesters reaching materials that could be detonated or made into a dirty bomb, the break-in raised questions about the safekeeping at the Y-12 National Security Complex, which holds the nation’s primary supply of bomb-grade uranium.
The right sentence
Federal judge Amul Thapar said he struggled to find the right sentence to balance Rice’s past good works with the need to deter others from breaking the law to pursue political goals.
Thapar did not oblige but did say that breaking the law was not the right way to pursue political goals. He said he hoped a significant prison sentence would deter others from following the same path and bring them “back to the political system I fear that they have given up on”.
He sentenced Rice to two years and 11 months in prison, the newspaper reported.
Fellow anti-nuclear activists Michael Walli, 64, and Greg Boertje-Obed, 58, were sentenced to five years and two months in prison because of their criminal histories.
The latter said using baby bottles to toss blood on the facility was symbolic. “The reason for the baby bottles was to represent that the blood of children is spilled by these weapons,” Boertje-Obed, 58, said at trial.
The activists’ attorneys had asked the judge to sentence them to time they had already served, about nine months, because of their record of goodwill. Rice became a nun when she was 18 and served for 40 years as a missionary in western Africa teaching science.
The court’s records were not immediately updated to reflect the sentences imposed and neither the prosecutors nor the Ploughshares group could immediately be reached for comment.
The New York Times says Rice, a native New Yorker, has been arrested as many as 50 times for acts of civil disobedience and once served a six-month jail term. It said that in 1998 she was arrested in a protest at the School of the Americas, an army school in Georgia that taught Latin American soldiers to fight leftist insurgencies, and served those six months in prison.
“It was a great eye-opener,” she said in an interview with the Times in 2012. “When you’ve had a prison experience, it minimises your needs very much.”
She told the newspaper that nuclear arms were a problem. “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,” she said.
The news came the same day a whistle-blower who raised safety concerns at the most polluted nuclear weapons production site in the US was fired from the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.
Donna Busche’s complaints are part of a string of whistle-blower and other claims related to the design and safety of an unfinished waste treatment plant at Hanford, created by the federal government in the 1940s as part of the top-secret project to build the atomic bomb. Today, it is the nation’s most contaminated nuclear site, where clean-up of some 53 million gallons of highly radioactive waste from plutonium production costs about US$2 billion each year.
“I turned in my key and turned in my badge and left the building,” said the 50-year-old, who was the manager of environmental and nuclear safety at the waste treatment plant construction and a “highly compensated executive”.
Busche worked for URS Corporation, which is helping build a US$12 billion plant to turn Hanford’s most dangerous wastes into glass. Construction of the plant has been halted over safety concerns.
Busche has filed complaints with the federal government alleging she has suffered retaliation since filing her original safety complaint in 2011.
The nuclear waste is stored in 177 ageing underground tanks, many of which have leaked, threatening the groundwater and the neighbouring Columbia River.
The US Department of Energy is investigating Busche’s safety concerns, while the US Department of Labour is reviewing her complaints about retaliation and harassment.
URS denied her firing was retaliatory and said it was unrelated to safety concerns she raised.
The Energy Department, which owns Hanford, said it was informed of the firing after the fact. “The department was not asked to and did not approve this action,” the agency said in a news release.
Busche is the second Hanford whistleblower to be fired by URS in recent months. Walter Tamosaitis, who also raised safety concerns about the plant, was fired in October after 44 years of employment.
With additional reporting from AP in Spokane