There is a vast military complex deep in the hills of eastern Tennessee called “Y-12.” This is where all of the highly enriched uranium is produced and stored for the production of the U.S. nuclear-warhead arsenal. It is in Oak Ridge, the city that was created practically overnight during World War II, that produced the uranium for the atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945. Today, the facility, dubbed “The Fort Knox of Uranium,” holds enough of the radioactive element to make 10,000 nuclear bombs.
It was there, in the pre-dawn hours of July 28, 2012, that three “Plowshares” peace activists, including an 82-year-old nun, penetrated the facility’s myriad security systems and got to the heart of the complex, the Highly Enriched Uranium Materials Facility, or HEUMF. They spray-painted messages of peace on the wall, poured blood, hammered on the concrete and were arrested. Earlier this month, a federal appeals court overturned their convictions for sabotage, setting them free after two years in prison. This was the first time convictions for sabotage for Plowshares activists have been reversed, a historic moment for nuclear disarmament.
Plowshares is a movement that derives its name from the biblical verse Isaiah 2:4, which instructs “they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” Inspired by faith and committed to action, Plowshares activists for the past 35 years have repeatedly engaged in nonviolent direct action. They access secure military facilities, hammer on weapons of war, be they warplanes or missile silos—or, in this most recent case, the facility that enriches and stores uranium for bombs. Among the first Plowshares activists were the Berrigan brothers, Father Daniel and the late Philip, who had gained national attention by burning draft records to protest the Vietnam War. In 1980, the Berrigans and others entered a General Electric plant in King of Prussia, Pa., where nuclear missiles were made, and hammered on nose cones, making them unusable. They went to prison for that and many subsequent actions. Scores of similar Plowshares disarmament protests have occurred around the globe since then.
The protesters who gained entry into the ultrasecure Y-12 complex were an unlikely trio: Sister Megan Rice, a Catholic nun; Michael Walli, a Vietnam veteran turned Catholic peace activist; and Greg Boertje-Obed, a former U.S. Army officer, now a house painter and peace activist. After cutting through four separate fences and traversing patrolled grounds to get to the HEUMF, they painted slogans that read “The Fruit of Justice Is Peace” and “Plowshares Please Isaiah.” Like the previous actions, this group coined a name for themselves, “Transform Now Plowshares.” I asked Sister Megan what that meant. “Why have we spent $10 trillion in 70 years, when that could have been used to transform not just the United States, but the world, into life-enhancing alternatives?” she told me. “Instead, we make something that can never be used, should never be used, probably will never be used, unless we want to destroy the planet.”
The security breach sent shock waves through the national-security establishment, especially at the Department of Energy, which runs Y-12. While the three Transform Now Plowshares activists faced federal sabotage charges and up to 30 years in prison, they were still out on bail and free to attend the congressional hearings prompted by their act of civil disobedience, which The New York Times labeled “the biggest security breach in the history of the nation’s atomic complex.’ Texas Republican Congressman Joe Barton praised Sister Megan Rice:
“We want to thank you for pointing out some of the problems in our security. While I don’t totally agree with your platform that you were espousing, I do thank you for bringing out the inadequacies of our security system ... that young lady there brought a Holy Bible. If she had been a terrorist, the Lord only knows what could have happened.”
Massachusetts Democratic Congressman Ed Markey, now a senator, addressed her as well, adding, “Thank you for your willingness to focus attention on this nuclear-weapons buildup that still exists in our world and how much we need to do something to reduce it.”
Sister Megan Rice is now 85 years old. She and her two co-defendants await a lower court’s decision on whether or not they should continue serving time for the lesser charges of destruction of government property, for cutting fences, painting slogans and pouring blood on Y-12. But freedom from prison is clearly not her first concern. “As long as there’s one nuclear weapon existing,” she told me, “nobody is free.”
Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.