An 84-year-old nun and two fellow Catholic peace activists will learn today (Feb. 18) whether they will spend the next six to nine years in prison.
On July 28, 2012, the activists trespassed on the grounds of a nuclear weapons plant in Oak Ridge, Tenn., cutting through three fences in the pre-dawn hours before reaching a $548 million storage bunker that holds the nation's primary supply of bomb-grade uranium. They splashed blood on a wall of the bunker and painted messages such as, "The fruit of justice is peace."
When security finally arrived, guards found Megan Rice, Greg Boertje-Obed and Michael Walli hanging banners, singing and offering to break bread with them. The protesters reportedly also offered to share a Bible, candles and white roses with the guards.
Although the protesters had set off alarms, they were able to spend more than two hours inside the restricted area before they were caught. And while officials claimed there was never any danger of the protesters reaching materials that could be detonated or used to assemble a dirty bomb, the delayed response to the intrusion raised serious questions about security at the place officials liked to call the "Fort Knox of uranium."
The Department of Energy's inspector general wrote a scathing report on the security failures that allowed the activists to reach the bunker, and the security contractor was later fired.
Some government officials praised the activists for exposing the facility's weaknesses. But prosecutors declined to show leniency, instead pursing serious felony charges.
At trial, prosecutors argued the intrusion was a serious security breach that continued to disrupt operations at the Y-12 National Security Complex even months later.
Attorneys for Rice and Walli, both of Washington, D.C., and Boertje-Obed of Duluth, Minn., said the protesters were engaged in a symbolic act meant to bring attention to America's stockpile of nuclear weapons, which they view as both immoral and illegal under international law.
Rice testified that she was surprised the group made it all the way to the interior of the secured zone without being challenged and that plant operations were suspended.
"That stunned me," she said. "I can't believe they shut down the whole place."
They were found guilty on May 8, 2013, of sabotaging the plant and damaging federal property.
The government has recommended sentences of about six to nine years in prison. Attorneys for the activists argue the more-than-nine months they have spent behind bars already is sufficient punishment.
At the first part of the sentencing hearing three weeks ago, more than 100 supporters filled the courtroom and an overflow room where they watched the proceedings on a video feed. Friends of the defendants testified to their good characters and kind hearts, saying the three had dedicated their lives to pursuing peace and serving the poor.
That hearing was abruptly shut down when the federal court house was closed because of snow, but not before U.S. District Judge Amul Thapar ruled that the three had to pay full restitution of nearly $53,000 for their actions.