Trial Begins For Protesters Who Broke Into Nuclear Complex

Jury selection begins next week in the trial of three nuclear protestors who broke into the Y-12 Nuclear Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tenn., last summer. The Department of Energy facility houses the nation's stockpile of highly-enriched uranium. The break-in was significant in some unexpected ways.

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Jury selection begins next week in the trial of three nuclear protestors. The group, including an 82-year-old nun, broke into the Y-12 Nuclear Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee last summer. The Department of Energy facility houses the nation's stockpile of highly-enriched uranium.

Matt Shafer Powell, of member station WUOT, reports.

MATT SHAFER POWELL, BYLINE: When the U.S. needs to store the bomb-grade uranium it uses in nuclear warheads, it locks it away in a warehouse at a government facility called Y-12. It's often described as the Fort Knox of nuclear weapons material. So no one was more surprised to find out that an 82-year-old nun could break into the complex than the woman who did it.

SISTER MEGAN RICE: We had no idea how much was electrocuted. The sensor, we didn't know exactly which was, we suspected which was but we kept moving. No dogs came out. We had heard dogs earlier on.

POWELL: Before the sun came up that July morning last year, Sister Megan Rice and two fellow pacifists had used bolt cutters to slice through four fences. They were painting slogans, hanging banners, and splashing human blood onto walls of the storage building where the government keeps all that uranium. Rice realizes they could have all been shot on sight. But she says she was at peace with that.

RICE: That is why I want to die. I will always want to give my life so that others may live better. So if that were the way that I would die, I would be very happy to die for that purpose.

POWELL: She wasn't shot. She was arrested, but even that didn't happen until the group approached the security guard with bread and roses and surrendered to him. By that time they'd been inside the complex for more than an hour.

PETER STOCKTON: I've got to tell you, I was shocked as hell. I mean, I couldn't believe it.

POWELL: That's Peter Stockton. For years he's been investigating security problems at Y-12 for the watchdog group Project on Government Oversight. He describes the security culture there as lousy.

STOCKTON: A lousy culture is that they simply don't believe that anything is going to happen. And as a result, they really don't pay attention to what's going on.

POWELL: Y-12 officials say that's changing. Since the break-in, some upper-level managers and contractors have been sent packing. The government has spent about $15 million to upgrade equipment and the alarm system. Inefficient processes have been changed. Guards have been retrained. But the anti-nuke protesters, who have always claimed a civil relationship with Y-12, say that's changed too.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHANTING PROTESTERS)

POWELL: On a recent Saturday, several dozen people showed up to rally against nuclear weapons on a strip of grass right next to the heavily guarded entrance to the complex. Activists have gathered there for almost 14 years. But this time, they were met with fences and told they'd have to stay on the other side of the road.

Ralph Hutchison, of the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance, believes the government is trying to make a statement.

RALPH HUTCHISON: They, for years, have told us, well, our nuclear weapons are what preserve your rights as citizens - that's why you have the right to protest here. Well, what's with that now?

POWELL: Y-12 officials declined to be interviewed. But in an email, a spokesman said the fences are just one response to the growing threat posed by trespassers. That's not the kind of change Sister Megan Rice and her fellow activists had in mind. If they had their way, the government's uranium storage facility wouldn't even exist and neither would nuclear weapons.

Rice says it's cause worth going to prison for.

RICE: It doesn't matter. It's six-to-one and half a dozen of the other. Whether we go to jail, whether we stay out, whatever happens is fine.

POWELL: If Rice is convicted she could be sentenced to 20 years in prison. A now 83-year-old nun knows she could die there. And she says that's fine, too.

For NPR News, I'm Matt Shafer Powell in Knoxville.

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