Megan Rice, an 83-year-old nun in custody in Ocilla, Ga., says she was making a statement.
In an unusual exchange of questions and answers with a reporter, Rice said the peaceful demonstration she staged last year with two other activists inside the Y-12 National Security Complex in Tennessee underscored a need for worldwide disarmament by exposing the danger of nuclear arsenals in stark terms.
Rice and her accomplices each face a possible three-decade prison sentence for their July 2012 action at Y-12, which handles sensitive materials and components for nuclear weapons.
Writing from the Irwin County Detention Center, where she awaits sentencing on Jan. 28 with the two men who joined her in illegally entering Y-12 grounds, Rice said a maximum punishment would only further benefit their cause. It could challenge “consciences to act” critically toward arguments that nuclear weapons are necessary tools for countries to help ensure stability and defend their interests.
“I expect only a life sentence to continue to live in truth, compassion and love for all of God’s creation,” Rice said in her handwritten response, which sounded spiritual themes and spelled out a deeply ideological perspective in response to nearly every question. “Keep your eyes on the prize: a healed, peaceful planet.”
Joined by veteran peace activists Greg Boertje-Obed and Michael Walli, Rice hiked through the woods of the 8-square-mile Y-12 campus, located in eastern Tennessee, in the predawn hours of July 28, 2012.
After cutting through four perimeter fences and entering Y-12’s “Protected Area” — where guards are authorized to use lethal force against intruders — the three activists reportedly focused their protest on the first building they saw: the storehouse where the United States holds highly enriched uranium capable of fueling nuclear bombs.
The group proceeded to spray-paint antiwar slogans, hang mock police tape and throw containers of human blood on the 110,000-square-foot Highly Enriched Uranium Materials Facility. When a lone guard arrived to investigate, the activists read to him a statement of their antinuclear views and proffered peacemaking items — candles, flowers, a Bible — prior to their arrest.
The news that the unarmed protesters had infiltrated a sensitive nuclear facility intended to withstand a coordinated terrorist assault stunned those who imagined the compound to be virtually impenetrable. Security faults noted years earlier had apparently gone unfixed, possibly helping the trio to reach the uranium storage facility. The structure stands at the northern edge of a 1.3-square-mile cluster of buildings, with little more than a road and several fences dividing it off from the surrounding trees.
Rice herself recalled feeling “amazement” that it was “so easy” for her to enter the secured site with Boertje-Obed and Walli, who were respectively 57 and 63 at the time.
The protest action, which they dubbed “Transform Now Plowshares,” prompted a short-term suspension of all nuclear operations at Y-12. In the months that followed, the U.S. government moved to replace the facility’s private operator and revamp security oversight at nuclear-arms sites across the nation.
The intrusion also spurred debates in Congress and the Obama administration on the possible need for deeper reforms, such as boosting oversight of the Energy Department agency responsible for operations at Y-12 and other U.S. nuclear-weapons facilities.
Rice, Boertje-Obed and Walli were each convicted in May of two felony counts of interfering with national security and damaging government property. The three activists had served prison time for past protest actions, and their entry at Y-12 was one among dozens of demonstrations carried out by the Plowshares peace movement since 1980.
“Building nuclear weapons is a war crime and a grievous sin,” Boertje-Obed told Global Security Newswire in a letter mailed in October from the Ocilla jail facility where the three activists are being held prior to sentencing. “The Nuremberg Principles state that preparing for a war crime is a war crime, and thus we have a right and a duty to take steps to intervene.”
In a separate October letter, Walli linked their protest to the antinuclear views of Martin Luther King Jr.
Walli lamented that the group is being held “substantially farther” from King’s gravesite in Atlanta than from Kings Bay, the East Coast home to the U.S. fleet of Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines.
“Dr. King had a vision,” Walli wrote. “President Obama offers a nightmare.”
Rice has less prison experience than her two accomplices, but did serve several months behind bars for her activism prior to the Y-12 protest. Her participation in nonviolent demonstrations over several decades also led to her brief arrest on dozens of occasions.
As a child, she apparently had little sense of the political views she would develop later in life. While attending a Catholic school in New York City during World War II, Rice read religiously grounded defenses of pacifism and judged them to be “very controversial,” she recalled in a 2005 interview.
“None of us were really anti-American government,” Rice said then. “Twenty, 30 years later, we began to realize the other side. It took a while.”
She recalled completing a master’s degree in biology at Boston College and in 1962 moving to Nigeria, where she spent her first years teaching mathematics and science to girls in a secluded boarding school without electricity or running water.
Rice became involved in the U.S. antinuclear movement during stints away from Africa, where she continued to teach off and on in Nigeria and Ghana until 2003.
While visiting New York City in the 1980s, she met with Japanese atomic-bomb survivors and demonstrated against nuclear weapons as part of a large-scale protest. She later joined the Nevada Desert Experience, a group opposed to atomic-arms experiments and development.
In her 2005 remarks for an Energy Department-financed collection of interviews with activists and government employees tied to the Nevada National Security Site — a Cold War-era nuclear testing ground — Rice argued that the United States has sought to maintain nuclear-weapons supremacy in an effort to “become the [only] superpower.”
“We are still [until] today, this very day, not mentioning the real nuclear powers when we pose the threat of nuclear buildup in … rogue countries,” she said in the Energy-sponsored interview.
Seven years later, she would help carry out what the New York Times called “the biggest security breach in the history of the nation’s atomic complex.”
Edited excerpts of GSN questions and Rice’s September mailed responses, which include repeated references to the inspiration she draws from her Catholic faith, follow:
GSN: How did your group decide that breaking into a nuclear weapons facility was the best way to communicate its anti-nuclear-weapons message?
Rice: … There is no “best way” to communicate anything that is true. … We prepared by personal and shared prayer, discernment, study, consultation with experienced and wise experts, and by [collaborating] with the wider peace community working towards the rule of law about nuclear disarmament.
We did not plan “to break into,” but to enter through illegal — nonfunctioning — fences around sites of known criminal activity [that include] producing, storing, refurbishing [and] threatening to use … illegal weapons of mass destruction. These weapons place at risk and are capable of extinguishing all [life]. …
We are obliged by our consciences to act when we know are free to do so. … As long as one nuclear bomb or energy facility exists, all of life remains its potential victim.
GSN: How did you personally decide that you wanted to take part in this unarmed intrusion at Y-12?
Rice: By prayer, discernment, examination of conscience, and weighing my priorities and responsibility [to address] root causes of suffering in our world. I engaged in consultation with people of conscience and integrity who are aware of the issues, and of my personal strengths and limitations. I was appointed to continue my research into the possibilities of eliminating nuclearism as a major cause of war and world poverty on many levels.
I knew of the [U.S.] government’s policies to modernize [the] nuclear [arsenal] and refurbish existing weapons of mass destruction rather than fulfill … existing international laws, binding principles, [and] treaties calling for nuclear dismantlement in good faith.
… Private for-profit contractors [have supported] this illegal policy through [U.S.] plans, already failed and enormously wasteful, to build a new “plutonium pit factory.” Its purpose was to ensure [a] capability of adding 80 new thermonuclear weapons to the arsenal of thousands, per year.
We chose to bring our message of truth to the employees. We decided Y-12 employees needed to know the truth that [there are alternatives] to the unlawful, death-causing work of constructing components for more nuclear warheads.
GSN: You were 82 years old at the time of the Y-12 action. What provisions did you arrange beforehand, if any, for the possibility that armed guards might have severely injured or killed you during the intrusion?
Rice: I had [an] expert and thorough medical assessment with advice [on] diet, exercise [and] adequate habits of rest and recreation from work. I had time to prepare for an extended time from my usual ministries.
Part of the preparation by [group] prayer and discernment … gave me confidence that the task was one worth giving … my life [to accomplish]. We were assured [we had] faithful supporters who were willing and able to meet our needs. …
GSN: What mindset did you have beforehand that allowed you to take such risks with your life?
Rice: Great expectancy [and] trust, with tenacious hope that we could bring truth and healing … Things can always be transformed into means for fostering life, not destroying it, when used with moderation, wisdom and creativity for the common good.
GSN: Did you have a specific role to play on the team that broke into the Y-12 campus? If so, what was it?
Rice: I actually conceived the name for our Plowshares action: “Transform Now Plowshares.” Just as each nuclear bomb ever used … has been given a unique name, each Plowshares action is given a name.
I also carried and hung the “Caution — Nuclear Crime Scene “¦” tape around three pillars in front of the — later known to us — Highly Enriched Uranium Materials Facility. …
We each assisted in labeling the building with spray-paint statements … and [in] symbolically [pouring] two baby bottles of real human blood on the building. [We poured the blood] in solemn remembrance of the lives lost [in the atomic-bombings of] Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and also of [our] willingness to give up our lives to prevent the continued existence of nuclear weapons or energy on this planet. …
GSN: As best you recall, what thoughts were going through your mind as your team cut through the first wire fence and trespassed onto the facility’s grounds?
Rice: Definitely, thoughts of gratitude — not without a degree of amazement — that this was so easy and unobserved. These emotions increased as we were [able] to pass neatly through each of the three remaining chain-[link] fences in less than 10 minutes.
[I also thought,] we were meant to do what we are doing. Carry on! …
GSN: Are there other details about what happened that day — before, during or after the trespassing — that have not yet been revealed publicly but that you would like to share with us?
Rice: Perhaps the fact that we were able to accomplish all that we had hoped to do by means of visual, symbolic messages. …
We also were given time [to] sing peace hymns and actually read aloud jointly, [a] written [statement to] the first security guard [of our] intentions to bring love, truth, peace and friendship for all who work at this dangerous facility.
Also, [we named] the actual laws — international and national — “¦ which are broken by engaging in [the] production and handling [of nuclear weapons]. …
GSN: How has your time in captivity been? What activities and thoughts have been filling the hours?
Rice: Responding to … hundreds of letters [in support of] the total elimination of these illegal weapons and the redirection of [funds now used] to store, proliferate or modernize nuclear weapons.
[I have also been working] to remind people [that after] 70 years … nuclear-weapons production has not ended.
… Real, urgent needs [are] now being largely neglected. Through carefully designed, wise policies, we can redirect allocations [to] reform … education, transportation, health care, housing, agriculture, employment, energy, etc.
Awareness continues to grow about the [trillions of dollars] which [have] been entirely wasted through the failed nuclear-weapons industrial complex, [filling] the pockets of warmongering profiteers [and] lobbyists. … By living with and building relationships [among] those most violated by … a military-based culture of violence, we are mutually energized to work for transformations in mind and heart. …
GSN: How have you been treated by prison officials and other inmates?
Rice: With genuine honor and respect for the necessity of responsible action for peace. …
Most of the inmates have been awakened to the root causes of dysfunction in the system of injustice which pervades the so-called justice [system] and prisons. … Prison officials have recognized the importance of resistance to … nuclearism as a means of false security. …
We do experience blessings of nonviolence at work where there is [typically] violence, and many positive signs for hope, the longer we [pray together] for peace. …
But we also experience [a] heart-[rending] education as we share life in all its aspects … with the victims of … imperialistic wars. The mentality of military violence and disempowerment by torture and fear pervades as fallout of the nuclear-industrial complex. …
GSN: The public reaction to the break-in has focused overwhelmingly on questions it raised about the security of the U.S. nuclear stockpile. Your group, however, has been clear that the action was intended as a call to eliminate all nuclear weapons. To what degree are you satisfied with the public response? Are there any respects in which you would prefer it to have been different?
Rice: … The expression “break-in” is a misrepresentation. It implies violent destruction of a real property. We legally entered by virtue of [our] responsibility to oppose and expose nonviolently known crimes.
We acted in obedience to the requirements of the Nuremberg Principles and U.S. Constitution Article 6. Many international laws and treaties call for the elimination of all nuclear weapons in good faith. Yet the U.S. has continued for 70 years in secrecy and fraudulent profiteering in constructing more than 70,000 nuclear warheads. …
The public response was more than we imagined, but surely not yet as effective as we see is truly called for after 70 years of faithful resistance by many people of conscience.
I would hope to see … enactments [of] laws such as H.R. 1650, the revised 2013 legislation proposed by D.C. [Congressional Delegate] Eleanor Holmes Norton, which calls for disarmament in good faith and reallocation of funds toward addressing the blatant social needs in the country.
GSN: How do you respond to the argument that dismantling a single nation’s nuclear force could leave that country’s people vulnerable to a devastating attack?
Rice: The very presence of nuclear weapons … evokes the response of mistrust, terrorism, anger and the motivation to violent means by the terrorized parties.
Differences [should] be settled by good-faith negotiations between parties. The trust must be earned by creating transparent, just, respectful relationships between all negotiating parties so that real dialogue, with compassionate listening, can take place.
Fear must never be a weapon for wielding power between equal participants for dialogue. Fear is driven out by genuine love and compassion.
Let us be realistic. War is never a solution.
GSN: Do you disagree with the contention that nuclear deterrence helped prevent a World War III, in a way that non-nuclear deterrence was unable to do in the first two world wars? Please briefly explain the basis for your view.
Rice: Yes, I disagree with the fact that nuclearism is ever or could ever be a deterrence to war.
Any nuclear war destroys both sides — launchers and responders and the entire planet. …
GSN: How do you respond to the concern that in the case of global nuclear disarmament, a single cheater with even just one illicit nuclear weapon could effectively blackmail the rest of the world, and perhaps be undeterred by the solely conventional arms that remain?
Rice: Every nuclear weapon is illicit, and can motivate the acquisition of non-nuclear states to [acquire their own nuclear weapons].
But … existing conventional arms are also unethical and immoral. War is immoral and unethical and cannot effectively settle disagreements. … Compassion creates and maintains mutual respectful relations, never “conventional” weapons.
Global nuclear disarmament has never been tried, [and] hence has never failed. Each existing … nuclear weapon does effectively “blackmail” the rest of the world because of the risk [it creates]. … Threat to use is implied in its construction, [violating] international humanitarian and international laws.
“Solely conventional arms” can also [indiscriminately destroy] lives and property, [and] hence [are] also immoral. …
GSN: In your view, what is necessary to create the political will around the world to negotiate the elimination of all nuclear weapons? Is it just a matter of increasing public pressure in countries where free speech allows for that?
Rice: … Education, communication and transparency, revealing and recognizing that all are equal in [their] right to life. …
Individuals and nation-states are equally and universally [responsible for] creating, according to their capacities, the “political will” to create and maintain the … education, communication and relationships which can effectively eliminate nuclear weapons. … Where there is the will there is a way.
GSN: How do you respond to the view that breaking into Y-12 was an act of treason against the United States?
Rice: … Those controlling [Y-12’s] illegal activities are [destroying] life within and beyond the U.S., and consequently are treasonous … against the stated purpose of the U.S.: To be a government of, for and by the people.
Y-12 has robbed the people of their share in their justly earned tax dollars which have built and maintained the illegal activities at Y-12 since 1943, when it was secretly constructed. …
GSN: You now face a possible life sentence for the Y-12 intrusion. How would you most like your action, and your decades of prior disarmament activism, to be remembered?
Rice: I think there are enough wise people of conscience and legal professionalism in this country [to] effectively restore justice in the court system. If not, the alternative [outcome would] bestir their consciences to act [in defense of] the future of [the] Earth. …
So I expect only a life sentence to continue to live in truth, compassion and love for all of God’s creation. … Keep your eyes on the prize: a healed, peaceful planet. …
[Whether] free or unjustly incarcerated … one is always free to “act justly, love tenderly and be humble.” …
This article was published in Global Security Newswire, which is produced independently by National Journal Group under contract with the Nuclear Threat Initiative. NTI is a nonprofit, nonpartisan group working to reduce global threats from nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons.
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