The 82-Year-Old Nun Who Breached U.S. High-Security Nuclear Complex

Thursday, September 06, 2012
Sister Megan Rice

“No good deed goes unpunished,” is a sardonic adage that applies with particular force to Sister Megan Rice, an 82-year-old Roman Catholic nun who will soon be tried in federal court in Knoxville, Tennessee, for pointing out critical security flaws at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge nuclear reservation in Tennessee. Despite the favor, the government takes exception to how she exposed those weaknesses on July 28.


That was the day that Sister Rice and two companions, armed only with flashlights and bolt cutters, took a hike in the Tennessee woods, walking into the 50-acre reservation—supposedly one of the most secure places in the country—and right up to the Highly Enriched Uranium Materials Facility, a $500 million building surrounded by huge guard towers. They splashed blood on its walls and hung banners with Bible quotes on them: “Swords into plowshares,” and “Spears into pruning hooks.”


The facility holds enough highly enriched uranium to arm thousands of nuclear weapons, which is why Sister Rice was there in the first place. Federal prosecutor William C. Killian calls the blood-splattering and banner-hanging “a matter of national security,” and “a significant case.” 


Sister Rice has been arrested 40 or 50 times for civil disobedience, once serving six months in prison, mainly protesting U.S. nuclear weapons. The DOE, which maintains the U.S. nuclear arsenal, helped pay for an oral history in which she described her childhood, her life as a nun and her antinuclear views. “It’s the criminality of this 70-year industry,” she said. “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.”


Sister Rice, a New York native who grew up in an affluent neighborhood in Morningside Heights, attended Catholic schools in Manhattan, took her vows at age 18 and earned degrees in biology from Villanova and Boston College, where she studied how to use radioactive tracers. From 1962 to 2004, she served her order as a teacher in Nigeria and Ghana, where, early on, “We slept in a classroom—no electricity, no water.” Eventually, malaria and typhoid fever forced Sister Rice to return to the U.S. permanently, and in 2005 her order permitted her to join the Nevada Desert Experience, a Las Vegas group that organizes spiritual events near the nuclear test site in support of nuclear abolition.


Her anti-nuclear activism began in the early 1980s when, accompanied at times by her mother, she protested at the Nevada nuclear weapons test site. Around 1990, Sister Rice and some other nuns attempted to enter the test site to hand out leaflets, but guards “came up with their guns and treated us as though we were terrible criminals.”


She was arrested in 1998, at a protest at the School of the Americas, an Army training facility at Fort Benning, Georgia, that trained Latin American soldiers to fight left-wing insurgencies. Its training manuals advocated targeting civilians, extrajudicial executions, torture, false imprisonment and extortion. Not surprisingly, many of its graduates went on to join death squads and commit human rights abuses.


Federal prosecutors have charged Sister Rice, Michael R. Walli, 63, and Gregory I. Boertje-Obed, 57, with misdemeanor trespass on government property and felony destruction and depredation of federal property. If convicted, they face up to 16 years in prison and fines up to $600,000. All pleaded not guilty. Their trial is set for October 10.


Meanwhile, back at Oak Ridge, officials fired security guard Kirk Garland, the guard who actually apprehended Sister Rice and the others, and are scapegoating him for the systemic security lapses—including inoperable security cameras and guards ignoring alarms—that allowed them to breach the facility with such ease. The government pays $1.2 billion for security at Oak Ridge every year, leading one unnamed DOE official to wonder “what are we getting for it?”

-Matt Bewig


To Learn More:

Guard Scapegoated in the Y-12 Security Debacle (by Peter Stockton and Lydia Dennett, POGO)

The Nun Who Broke Into the Nuclear Sanctum (by William J. Broad, New York Times)

Y-12 Security to Finally Be Tested (by Peter Stockton, POGO)

Break-in Reveals "Ineptitude" at Nuke Facility, Probe Finds (by Mia Steinle, POGO) 


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