The Federal Govt. Wants the Nuclear Industry to Be One Big Secret

The city of Oak Ridge, Tennessee and its neighbor Knoxville, are government towns.  Oak Ridge has been called “the closed city,” reminiscent of government cities in the old Soviet Union that were closed to the public because of sensitive weapons production and other activities Soviets wanted to keep from prying eyes.  In the case of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, the U.S. government wants to keep the production of nuclear bombs and their components away from public scrutiny.

Oak Ridge is a tough place to challenge the biggest employer in the area, a southern town where dissent is abnormal and prejudices of all sorts run deep in the culture and heritage.

Nine months ago, on July 28, 2012, three persons,  with the snip of four fences found themselves in the Oak Ridge nuclear weapons complex beside the most sensitive and dangerous of all buildings in the nuclear weapons program of the United States--the Highly Enriched Uranium Materials Facility (HEUMF)

Sister Megan Rice, an 83 year old nun from in Washington, D.C, Michael Walli, a 63 year old veteran with two tours in Vietnam and now a “missionary” for the Dorothy Day Catholic Worker house in Washington, D.C and Greg Boertje-Obed, 57, a Vietnam era  Army medical officer and now a Minnesota house painter  were arrested and charged with harming the national defense and causing more than $1000 damage to a government facility.  

The defendants had no thoughts of asking for a venue in any other place; this company town is where exposure to different ideas about nuclear weapons should happen, they believed.

There were 70 prospective jurors called for jury duty. Most had government backgrounds, family members or friends who had worked for the government. Only 3 had ever been to any type of protest, march or demonstration on any issue. 

Despite nodding affirmatively that she/he would be able to vote not-guilty if the government did not present evidence beyond a reasonable doubt that the elements of the charges had been met, one would hazard an opinion that each juror knew that crosses would be burned in their yards, children would be shunned at school and they would be stigmatized for the rest of their lives for voting not to convict the defendants, those challenging the nuclear weapons of their city and our country.

So, the three defendants went on trial for harming the United States national defense and causing physical damage to a defense facility in excess of $1000.  There was no charge of trespass.

In the early morning of July 28, 2012, the three defendants prayed in a church parking lot, walked a few hundred yards to a perimeter fence of the Y12 complex, carefully snipped the boundary fence to the Y-12 National Nuclear Security Complex at Oak Ridge, Tennessee.  No alarm sounded, not patrol arrived to check on possible intruders.

Finding no security to stop them, three decided to walk ahead and slowly climbed up a hill in switchbacks as the 82 year old nun had a heart condition and could not walk for long distances. After frequent stops, the group finally emerged at the top of the hill, along the Oak Ridge line and looked down on America’s most dangerous nuclear facility.  Since no patrol had come to stop them, they kept moving down the hill toward the complex in the valley, called by the “spirit,” they later said.

Soon they encountered three more fences and with the bolt cutters they carried, they cut through the first fence-no alarms, no sensors, sounded.  No patrols arrived, so they cut through the next fence and then the final fence.  They found themselves at the base of a fortress like building. Taking from their backpacks cans of spray paint, they sprayed some of the walls with biblical sayings “the fruit of justice is peace.”  They hung a banner on the last fence that read “Transform now”. They took their hammers and knocked a small chunk of concrete out of the wall and took out baby bottles filled with the blood of a priest who, before he died asked that some of his blood be poured on a nuclear facility to symbolize the blood of those killed by U.S. nuclear weapons during World War II and the testing of nuclear weapons afterwards.

Many minutes into their activities, a guard inside the building finally glanced at a camera screen and noticed that there seemed to be a hole in the fence and something hanging from the fence. He called for a patrol car to come to investigate.  The first officer arrived and spotted three persons walking toward him.  He then saw the spray painted walls.  Having worked 19 years as a security guard at Rocky Flats nuclear facility in Colorado, the guard decided the three were protesters of nuclear weapons and called in his assessment to the operations center.  A second security guard arrived and the three were arrested.  After spending several days in the county jail, they were released pending their trial nine months later on May 7 and 8, 2013.

At their trial last week in the government town of Knoxville, Tennessee, not unexpectedly, the three were convicted in less than three hours by a jury whose opinions on nuclear weapons were decidedly different than those of the defendants.  The government’s main argument was that the defendants caused harm to the credibility of America’s nuclear weapons program by exposing weaknesses in the security of the facility.

The defense's position that they had performed a public service by revealing the critical gaps in the security was considered irrelevant.  As new security training was administered to everyone on the complex, the production of nuclear weapons came to a standstill at the facility.  The three were castigated for their actions and held accountable for the delay of a secret convoy that was supposed to have arrived at Oak Ridge facility but for the security standstill. 

Oak Ridge is not the first time senior citizens have embarrassed the nuclear weapons program of the United States.  In November, 2009, five persons,  Catholic Sister Anne Montgomery, 84, Father Bill “Bix” Bichsel, 82, Father Steve Kelly, 61, Susan Crane, 67, and Lynne Greenwald, 61, cut through two fences and found their way to bunkers in which nuclear weapons were stored at the Kitsap-Bangor Naval Base in Washington, the largest nuclear weapons storage facility in the country.  They sprayed painted some walls and planted sunflowers. Hours later they flagged down a security car, as they had been out in the rain for hours and were cold. In December, 2010, they were found guilty of criminal trespass, destruction of government property and conspiracy. In 2011, the judge sentenced the five senior citizens to two to 15 months in prison, as follows:

  • Jesuit priest Bill Bichsel, 82: sentenced to three months in prison and six months home monitoring.
  • Sister Anne Montgomery, 84: sentenced to two months in prison and four months home monitoring.
  • Lynne Greenwald, 61: sentenced to six months in prison with 60 hours of community service.
  • Jesuit priest Stephen Kelly, 61: sentenced to 15 months in prison.
  • Susan Crane, 67: sentenced to 15 months in prison.

Problems with the security of U.S. nuclear weapons abound. The U.S. Energy Department revealed in November, 2011 it had reviewed 16 alcohol-related incidents by agents assigned to transport nuclear weapons in trucks during the period 2007 through 2009. In one instance, an agent was arrested for intoxication. In another instance, two agents were handcuffed following an incident outside a bar. None went to jail.  

In May, 2013, an Air Force investigation revealed a missile launch force in disarray and resulted in the unprecedented removal of 17 launch officers from duty at Minot Air Force Base, N.D. Weapons safety rules were violated and codes for the Air Force's most powerful nuclear missiles may have been compromised, among other failures cited in a report. Superiors were not shown the proper respect, and their orders were questioned.  "We are, in fact, in a crisis right now," Lt. Col. Jay Folds, deputy commander of the 91st Operations Group, told subordinates in an email obtained by the AP. The group is responsible for all Minuteman three-missile launch crews at Minot. Read more here.

In the case of the Y-12 Oak Ridge trial, a federal judge repremanded the three defendents and convicted them to the  county jail, citing dangers they had caused to national security. It looks like they may end up staying in the county jail until a sentencing hearing in September, 2013.

No U.S. government official was charged with dereliction of duty for jeopardizing national security in the lack of protection for nuclear weapons at the Y-12 Oak Ridge Nuclear Complex.


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