Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 19 April 2014

Nun guilty of weapons plant breach

Sister Megan Rice attends a rally by supporters before her trial (AP/Knoxville News Sentinel, J Miles Cary)

An 83-year-old nun and two fellow protesters have been convicted of interfering with national security when they broke into the primary storehouse for bomb-grade uranium in the US.

It took the jury about two-and-a-half hours to find the three protesters guilty of a charge of interfering with national security and a second charge of damaging federal property.

The trio spent two hours inside the complex, which has had a hand in making, maintaining or dismantling parts of every nuclear weapon in the country's arsenal. They cut through security fences, 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.

Sister Megan Rice, Michael Walli and Greg Boertje-Obed, who testified on their own behalf during their federal trial, said they have no remorse for their actions and were pleased to reach one of the most secure parts of the facility.

Defence lawyers said in closing arguments that federal prosecutors had overreached in the charges against the trio because of the embarrassment caused by the break-in. "The shortcomings in security at one of the most dangerous places on the planet have embarrassed a lot of people," defence lawyer Francis Lloyd said. "You're looking at three scapegoats behind me."

Prosecutor Jeff Theodore was dismissive of claims that the protesters' actions were beneficial to security. The head of an agency charged with safeguarding the US nuclear weapons stockpile said the breach is "completely unacceptable" and an "important wake-up call." Neile Miller, acting administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration, told a Senate subcommittee that officials have taken "decisive action" since the incident, including a new management team and a new defense security chief to oversee all NNSA sites.

Sister Rice said during cross examination that she wished she hadn't waited so long to stage a protest inside the plant. "My regret was I waited 70 years," she said. "It is manufacturing that which can only cause death."

Sister Rice said she didn't feel obligated to ask the Catholic bishop in the area for permission to act at Y-12. Challenged by a prosecutor about whether it would have been a courtesy to inform superiors of her plans, Sister Rice responded: "I've been guilty of many discourtesies in my life."

All three defendants said they felt guided by divine forces in finding their way through the darkness from the perimeter of the plant to the enriched uranium plant without being detected.

The protesters' lawyers noted that once they refused to plead guilty to trespassing, prosecutors substituted that charge with the sabotage count that increased the maximum prison term from one year to 20 years. The other charge of damaging federal property carries a maximum sentence of 10 years.

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