Sister Megan Rice and the Atomic Complex Security Breach




By Murray Polner




Sister Megan Rice, anti-nuclear activist and Roman Catholic nun of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus, with co-defendants Michael Walli and Greg Boertje-Obed.








By Murray Polner



After spending two years in prison for entering and defacing an ultra-secret nuclear facility, 85-year-old Sister Megan Rice, a nun of the Roman Catholic Society of the Holy Child, and her two co-defendants, Michael Walli, 66, and Greg Boertje-0bed, 59, were released in May 2015 by order of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. The jurists ruled that the federal government had been overly-zealous in charging them with sabotage. While free, they now have to wait until June 22nd to learn if the Department of Justice will contest their release. Now free, Sister Rice says she will never stop objecting to America’s addiction to nuclear weapons.


I’m the co-author (with Jim O’Grady) of “Disarmed and Dangerous,” a 1997 biography of Daniel and Philip Berrigan, the rebellious anti-Vietnam War Roman Catholic priests of that stormy era.  As a result, I came to know some of the extraordinarily courageous men and women who acted as Sister Rice, Walli and Boertje did. They were all Plowshares people, supporters of Phil’s quixotic Plowshares movement.


I’d been thinking about Sister Megan Rice and two army veterans, Michael Walli and Greg Boertje-Obed, since their arrest and conviction for doing far less harm than the hardline ideologues who took us into Iraq and cost so many lives. Convicted in 2012, Sister Rice received a 35 month sentence and the two men 62 months each.


So what was their crime? Cutting a hole in a barbed wire fence in one of Oak Ridge’s ultra-secret National Security sites on July 28, 2012, and then crossing over into sacred, prohibited ground, hammering on the Highly Enriched Uranium Material Facility and spray painting some “Biblical graffiti,” leaving behind Isaiah’s subversive aphorism about beating swords into plowshares.


You would think that the break-in at the highly secretive, presumably well-protected Y-12 National Security Complex at the Oak Ridge, Tennessee, nuclear facility, their subsequent federal trial in Knoxville, why they did it yet failed to convince the jury, let alone the American public, would merit some serious attention from the few remaining serious American newspapers, or network TV’s evening’s alleged “news” programs. (NPR/PBS excepted). But no one was murdered or even wounded by a hail of bullets from vigilant guards. No one was captured and beaten. No one resisted arrest.  The trio did what they did, and surrendered, willing and eager to explain.


The NY Times’ William J. Broad did have a substantial piece, “The Nun Who Broke into the Nuclear Sanctum” about Sister Megan Rice but that was back on August 12, 2012, after the break-in. The last time I’m aware of any interest on the paper’s part was October 31, 2012, when an article discussed the failure of the site’s security, where incredibly, no-one at the facility shouted, “Halt, who goes there?” at the trespassers.  Since then, silence except for a tiny Reuters sidebar last Feb. 19, 2014 announcing their sentences.


In any event, the trio was tried and found guilty in federal court in Knoxville and fined $52,053--which the government will obviously never collect since in all probability a nun, a house painter, and an unemployed activist do not usually generate much financial gain from a personal portfolio of stocks and bonds or a hedge fund. And anyway, what they accomplished wasn’t much, just shutting down some Oak Ridge activities for two weeks. But they also reminded the guardians of the nuclear site that apparently anyone – even people bent on doing real damage – could just saunter in and possibly do as they pleased. So here’s another question for our national media, print and online media: What are we paying those private security companies for?


It’s as if Dan and Phil Berrigan suddenly returned for a second act. It was Phil’s brainstorm, which he called the Plowshares movement and which flatly rejected our never-ending unaccountable government-sponsored violence. Some one hundred men and women during the eighties and nineties hammered on and spray- painted MX missiles, Trident submarines, B-52 bombers and components of the strategic nuclear triad, sending some to prison but essentially unnoticed by a bored and distracted nation.


Phil Berrigan once spoke about how hard it was to get fellow Americans interested in what they were saying. “Even sympathizers thought Plowshares actions look ridiculous now, a sermon to the converted, ignored by the government and the media, the public no longer listening.”  Of course he was right. All the same, he and his friends left a gift to anti-nuke radicals like Sister Megan Rice, Michael Walli and Greg Boertje-Obed who never lost their faith in the power and majesty of nonviolence, however unrealistic it may seem to people accustomed to passively accepting wars, casualty lists, and the inescapable threat of nuclear nations one day destroying one another.


But back to Oak Ridge   If obsolete cameras and barbed wire fences could not keep three older people out of the Y-12 National Security Complex, should  any independent investigative journalists still left  in the Obama Era of Espionage Act Violations  not ask why all those pricey weapons? Against whom are they supposed to be used? At the trial, the prosecuting U.S. attorney told the jury that nuclear deterrence was vital for our defense but no-one outside of that Knoxville courtroom seemed very interested in asking why.


But what if we have a nuclear accident, or just another Petrov Incident? Remember that?  When Soviet Lt. Col. Stanislav Petrov in 1983 saw a missile heading for Moscow on his radar screen and soon after, four more U.S. missiles approaching, he didn’t report it  because he was smart enough to suspect a computer glitch. Had he done so and his bosses retaliated with their nukes, most of us would no longer be among the living. There have been other near-hits, some reported, some not. You’ll need an FOI request to find out.  Given the frightened and often bewildered reactions in our Nuclear/War on Terror Age anything can happen.


During the trial, the judge said he hadn’t found the defendants “contrite.”  Kathy Boylan, a longtime peace worker, testified in their behalf, even alluding to the Holocaust. She quoted Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker, peace and nonviolence activist, opponent of conscription, all wars and a faithful Catholic who may yet wind up beatified by the Church, saying, “If we wouldn’t put people in gas chambers, why would we fling gas chambers at them?”


“Michael,” Boylan told the court, referring to Walli, “is trying to save lives. Your life,” she told the Judge, and then turning toward the prosecutor, “Your life. All our lives.”


Interviewed after her release from prison, Sister Rice told the New York Times that in the event the federal government should choose to appeal and win, and she is returned to prison, “It would be an honor. Good Lord, what would be better than to die in prison for the anti-nuclear cause?”



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