KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — An 84-year-old nun was sentenced Tuesday to nearly three years in prison for breaking into a nuclear weapons complex and defacing a bunker holding bomb-grade uranium, a demonstration that exposed serious security flaws at the Tennessee plant.
Two other peace activists who broke into the facility with Megan Rice, including Greg Boertje-Obed of Duluth, Minn., were sentenced to more than five years in prison, in part because they had much longer criminal histories of mostly non-violent civil disobedience.
Although officials said 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 safekeeping at the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge. The facility holds the nation's primary supply of bomb-grade uranium and was known as the "Fort Knox of uranium."
After the break-in, the complex had to be shut down, security forces were re-trained and contractors were replaced.
In her closing statement, Rice asked the judge to sentence her to life in prison, even though sentencing guidelines called for about six years.
"Please have no leniency with me," she said. "To remain in prison for the rest of my life would be the greatest gift you could give me."
She said the U.S. government was spending too much money on weapons and the military, and she told the judge about the many letters of support she had received, including one from youth in Afghanistan.
"This is the next generation and it is for these people that we're willing to give our lives," she said.
Rice, Boertje-Obed and Michael Walli all said God was using them to raise awareness about nuclear weapons and they viewed the success of their break-in as a miracle.
Their attorneys asked the judge to sentence them to time they had already served, about nine months, because of their record of good works throughout their lives.
Rice is a sister in the Society of the Holy Child Jesus. She became a nun when she was 18 and served for 40 years as a missionary in western Africa teaching science.
Walli's attorney said the activist served two tours in Vietnam before returning to the U.S. and dedicating his life to peace and helping the poor. Walli said he had no remorse about the break-in and would do it again.
"I was acting upon my God-given obligations as a follower of Jesus Christ," he told U.S. District Judge Amul Thapar.
The judge said he was concerned the demonstrators showed no remorse and he wanted their punishment to be a deterrent for other activists. He was also openly skeptical about whether the protesters caused any real harm and challenged prosecutors to prove it. Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeff Theodore said they had destroyed the "mystique" of the "Fort Knox of uranium."
On July 28, 2012, the three activists cut through three fences before reaching a $548 million storage bunker. They hung banners, strung crime-scene tape and hammered off a small chunk of the fortress-like Highly Enriched Uranium Materials Facility, or HEUMF, inside the most secure part of complex.
They painted messages such as, "The fruit of justice is peace," and splashed baby bottles of human blood on the bunker wall.
"The reason for the baby bottles was to represent that the blood of children is spilled by these weapons," Boertje-Obed, 58, a house painter from Duluth, Minn., said at trial.
Although the protesters set off alarms, they were able to spend more than two hours inside the restricted area before they were caught.