OAK RIDGE - The government plans to get tough with Oak Ridge protesters, and that strategy may become evident at a demonstration this weekend at the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant.
For the first time protesters arrested for trespassing or other acts of civil disobedience will be charged with federal offenses, according to a top official at the nuclear installation.
"We have seen a pattern of escalating aggressiveness, so it is important that we draw the line," said Bill Brumley, who heads the National Nuclear Security Administration's office in Oak Ridge.
"The rules haven't changed. We have always had this option available to us. But the circumstances have changed."
Federal trespassing charges carry a maximum sentence of a year in jail, with potential fines up to $100,000.
In the past Oak Ridge protesters have been charged with trespassing under a city ordinance or state statutes, but those provided little deterrent, Brumley said.
The city's maximum fine is $50, and the attorney general in Anderson County has thrown out most of the state cases, refusing to prosecute protesters on trespassing and other nonviolent offenses.
The Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance has used the low cost of arrests to help drum up participation at Y-12 protests, including a rally scheduled Sunday afternoon at the plant's entrance.
"The price of acting on your conscience has never been lower!" the group proclaimed in its newsletter earlier this year. The newsletter is distributed to peace groups and anti-nuclear organizations around the country.
At the time the Oak Ridge alliance said there was only a slim chance plant officials would invoke federal charges.
"The federal courts are not anxious to have protesters and there is no precedent in Oak Ridge for that kind of enforcement," the newsletter states.
Ralph Hutchison, coordinator of the peace alliance, said Thursday some acts of civil obedience would be carried out Sunday to protest Y-12's continuing role in the production of nuclear weapons. Hutchison said the latest information regarding federal charges would be shared with protesters.
Stiffer penalties may cause some would-be participants to rethink their plans, but Hutchison said the overall mission of peace activists will not change.
"In terms of weakening people's resolve, I don't think so," he said.
Hutchison said protesters have a right under international law to enter Y-12 and pursue the disarmament of the nuclear arsenal.
"We have lawful authority," he said.
Brumley said federal officials want to deter protesters before they threaten security at the Oak Ridge installation.
Although historically there have been good relations between protesters and plant protectors, Brumley said the situation has changed over the past couple of years.
As part of the "Stop The Bombs" campaign, activists upped the number of protests and began using surprise tactics to leverage the impact.
Brumley said several actions have caused concern, including the use of aircraft cable to block a road and vandalism on the plant's entrance sign. He also noted that protesters started entering the plant at unannounced locations, putting more of a strain on the protective force.
He said the government's intent is to stop the protesters at the initial boundary and enforce violations there rather than deal with intruders who could potentially reach more sensitive areas of the Y-12 plant. Security guards are authorized to use "deadly force" if intruders pose a threat to certain operations, he said.
The events of Sept. 11 pushed plant protection to a new level, Brumley said.
Hutchison said it's ridiculous to suggest that protesters pose a threat to the nuclear weapons housed at Y-12.
"But we are a threat to the nuclear policy that puts those weapons there," he said.
Brumley acknowledged that nuclear protesters have not shown any intent to disrupt operations at Y-12, but he added: "When they start to violate our security perimeters, we have to enforce it."
The peace alliance has vowed to multiply the number of protesters, with predictions of up to 7,000 for future demonstrations, and Brumley said authorities take those pronouncements seriously.
"We have been following their Web site. It's pretty good intelligence in terms of their plans," he said.
The federal official praised the Oak Ridge Police Department for its long-time cooperation, but he said the city is not equipped to handle the response if the number of protesters exceeds 400.
Police Capt. Bill Moehl said police would be on hand Sunday to ensure the events are safe.
Moehl said large protests strain the city's resources and the city has encouraged federal agencies to become more involved in the response.
Brumley said federal officials would be on hand to make arrests, if necessary, at Sunday's events. If protesters are arrested, they will be processed and transported to the Blount County Jail, which has a contract for federal prisoners, he said.
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