‘Prophets of Oak Ridge,’ and facility guard adjust to fallout of nuclear break-in-in


Gregory Boertje-Obed, Sister Megan Rice, and Michael Walli were sentenced to time in federal prison for breaking in to the Y-12 National Security Complex in Tennessee. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)
February 26

They met just before dawn a year and a half ago, next to a big white building full of uranium. He was a security guard helping to protect a nuclear weapons site. They were three peace activists assailing the bomb as a false idol. They surrendered first to him, then to the justice system. He was placed on leave, then fired. They had hiked a wooded ridge and cut through the three alarmed fences at the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tenn., and he hadn’t leapt from his patrol car, hadn’t drawn his weapon and immediately cuffed them.

Last week, all four had appointments in court — the three activists to be sentenced after their May conviction for sabotage, the guard for a hearing on his bankruptcy petition. All four were starting the next phase of their lives in the same building, on the same day, two floors apart.

Kirk Garland declared his worldly assets at $41,475 — about $10,000 less than the cost of repairing the fences, scrubbing biblical graffiti and human blood from the big white building, and enlisting manpower to work overtime on a weekend to manage a security situation upended by Sister Megan Rice, Michael Walli and Greg Boertje-Obed.

On the third floor of U.S. District Court here, Kirk and his wife waited to see if any creditors would show up to object to their filing.

On the first floor, the activists expressed no remorse for their actions and awaited their punishment.

PostTV sat down to talk with Sister Megan Gillespie Rice in April 2013, before she headed to Tennessee to face trial. (The Fold/The Washington Post)

* * *

Since their conviction, they had been injail in south Georgia, in open pods of 50 to 70 inmates in the charge of U.S. Marshals. The food was too starchy, the air conditioning too cold, but otherwise Sister Megan compared the overall experience to her time at summer camp in the mid-1940s in Maine, where she first heard about the Hiroshima bomb that was fueled by uranium enriched at the site she would break into 67 years later.

The whole point of their operation had been to trigger public outrage over the trillions spent on nuclear weapons since World War II, which makes those programs the nation’s third-highest priority, right behind Social Security and non- nuclear military spending.

And even after the media attention faded for a time, the letters from the outside world kept coming to jail, faster than the three could answer them. “Thank you,” people wrote. The letters said stay strong, keep the faith, the sacrifice will bear fruit.

“Gratitude” is how Sister Megan, now 84, signed her responses.

“Your respectful servant” is how Michael, 65, a Vietnam vet from Washington, D.C., signed his.

“With hope for the coming justice” is how Greg, 58, a house painter from Duluth, Minn., signed his.

All three were career protesters who among them had served close to a decade in jail for other actions, so none of them flinched when they heard their punishment: The judge sentenced the two men to five years and two months and the sister got two years and 11 months, with credit for the nine months served, for intending to endanger the national defense and destroying more than $1,000 in government property. They also were ordered to pay $52,953 in restitution to the government.

Before the sentencing, Sister Megan had comforted family members visiting in jail by saying she had “been away” for long periods of time before, when she ministered in Africa for decades. Michael looked forward to reading an “indictment” of the United States into the official record. Greg wasn’t precisely sure what he would say in court, though Mark 13:11 has been on his mind.

Whenever you are arrested and brought to trial, do not worry beforehand about what to say. Just say whatever is given you at the time, for it is not you speaking, but the Holy Spirit.

* * *

Kirk Garland considers his new job to be more dangerous than his old job, and his old job involved protecting deadly radioactive substances: plutonium for 21 years at the Rocky Flats Plant in Colorado and uranium for nearly six years at Y-12 in Oak Ridge.

The new job involves keeping order in a prison area of 108 volatile inmates at the Morgan County Correctional Complex.

“It can go south real fast,” he said last week, sitting in front of the TV at his rental home on a dark country road northwest of Oak Ridge.

He takes home about $1,400 a month as a corrections officer. His rent is $1,100. His last utility bill was $345. The math has been ruthless since August 2012, when he was fired from Y-12. He lost his car, then his home. He’s now making a quarter of what he used to make at Y-12. After 30 years of working in nuclear security for the Energy Department’s private contractors, he was a 53-year-old who had to rely for a time on food stamps and checks from his mother.

“Life is a struggle, man,” he said.

Kirk, his wife Joann and their 17-year-old daughter, Kodie, breed and sell German shepherd puppies to law enforcement agencies for around $500 each. Last year they sold enough puppies to take Kodie to a barrel-racing championship in Cloverdale, Ind., where she rode her horse, Oddysey, into the top 10.

Garland appealed his termination, but in the days before his arbitration his speech began to slur, he lost muscular control of his right hand and received a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis, He read articles that cited stress and exposure to toxic chemicals as possible causes.

He thinks of his father, Ronald, his brother Kevin, his uncle Jim Kelly, his two cousins. All died prematurely. All worked at Rocky Flats. As the guards at these nuclear facilities are fond of saying, according to Kirk: “It’s not if you get sick. It’s when.”

“It’s just like being a coal miner,” he said. “They know they’re probably gonna get the black lung, but the pay is good, so you sacrifice for the pay.”

The private contractor in charge of Y-12 at the time of the intrusion — the one responsible for broken surveillance cameras, a backlog of repair requests, a complacent security culture and other factors that allowed the activists to get as far as they did — is still managing and operating the site that is, the government argued during the activists’ trial, integral to the national defense.

Kirk’s arbitration is now set for April. He thinks the Energy Department owes him, not only for his decades of service but also for properly assessing a threat that was not his job to prevent in the first place, for not escalating a situation that was essentially harmless. He knew right away, from decades of experience, that the old lady and her accomplices weren’t terrorists.

He looks at the government, seemingly immune from consequence.

He looks at the private contractors, insulated by profit.

He looks at the activists, comforted by a devoted network of supporters.

And then he looks elsewhere.

“God’s got something planned for us,” Kirk says.

* * *

For a site nicknamed “the Fort Knox of Uranium” in a place known historically as “the Secret City,” the intrusion by activists who described themselves as “bungling” was a profound embarrassment.

“We had this one event and it paints the entire site in a very negative light, very unfairly I think,” says Ted Sherry, the site manager until 2011 and now a consultant to the Energy Department and its National Nuclear Security Administration, which oversees the nuclear stockpile. “There are so many fine, fine professionals that work out there that do things for our country that are very patriotic, and it’s just painful to watch.”

A year and a half and $15 million later, there are 2,850 linear feet of new concertina wire, 62 new cameras around the uranium storage facility, and three upgraded gun rooms, according to the NNSA. There’s been a change in federal leadership and contract management and what the NNSA called a “significant” reduction in false alarms, which were once so prevalent that they dulled site workers’ vigilance.

Meanwhile, Oak Ridge and the 8,000 people who work at Y-12 have been in limbo. In January 2013, the for-profit site manager B&W Y-12 Technical Services lost a bid on a new 10-year, $23 billion contract to manage both Y-12 and the Pantex nuclear weapons facility in Texas. It has appealed. Who’s going to run the 150-acre Oak Ridge facility remains up in the air.

Regardless, its sense of invincibility is shattered. During the first part of a sentencing hearing, on Jan. 28, the convicts listened intently to testimony from retired Brig. Gen. Rodney Johnson, Y-12’s security chief.

Did the break-in affect the mission of deterrence, federal prosecutor Jeffrey Theodore wanted to know.

“Yes,” Johnson said after a moment’s pause, adding that the site’s reputation was tarnished. “The mystique is gone. I’d be concerned about other folks looking at Y-12 as an appealing target they’d not thought of before.”

Anti-nuclear activists have been emboldened. Two days before that hearing, a couple dozen of them — locals as well as supporters who had driven from as far away as Arizona — attended the weekly Sunday night vigil across the road from the main entrance to Y-12, where two Oak Ridge police cars sat. Using transcripts, they play-acted the testimony of Ramsey Clark, the attorney general under Lyndon Johnson who was an expert witness in a pre-trial hearing in April 2013.

Civil resistance “is the only way people have to tell the truth,” one of them intoned, reciting Clark’s testimony. “If we keep on building [bombs], we are on the path to total destruction. Attention had to be paid.”

At that, a 31-year-old divinity student from Boston was moved to action. Chris Spicer rose from his chair, crossed the road and walked over the “blue line” that demarcates federal property.

Two cops sprang from their vehicles.

“Hey!” one said, as Spicer extended his arms outward and kept walking slowly toward the front entrance.

They stopped and cuffed him. The sound of sirens grew louder. Four more squad cars screeched into position, turning twilight red and blue.

The supporters watched from the other side of the road, singing the civil rights anthem “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize.”

* * *

U.S. District Judge Amul Thapar often hears testimony in drug cases and coal-mining lawsuits, and during the second and final sentencing hearing on Feb. 18 he openly grappled with rendering justice in a case driven by the moral principles of the defendants.

The criminal statute and sentencing guidelines do “not distinguish saboteurs who truly mean harm from peace protesters who intend change,” said Thapar, who was appointed to the federal bench in 2007 by George W. Bush.

“How do you take — by all accounts — very good people and deter them from very bad acts?” Thapar asked the attorneys on both sides.

“Engaging in nonviolent disobedience is not a danger to society,” said Michael Walli’s lawyer Christopher Irwin.

“They may be nonviolent but that doesn’t mean they’re not dangerous,” prosecutor Jeff Theodore said in his final argument. “They are the epitome of recidivists.”

“Michael Walli is trying to save our lives — your life, Judge Thapar. Your life, Mr. Theodore,” is how Kathy Boylan, who lives with Michael at the District’s Dorothy Day Catholic Worker house, put it when she testified.

Late in the afternoon, the activists had their chance to claim the pulpit after months behind bars.

Michael said: “I make no apology. I am not remorseful. . . . I am the face of tomorrow. The face of total demilitarization. And the vindication of the prophets.”

Greg quoted a 1967 speech by Martin Luther King Jr., in which the reverend asserted that “social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action.”

Sister Megan spoke about people she has met in prison who are “impoverished by the violence and cost of an economy based on manufacturing WMDs and war-making — inhumanly separated by distance and poverty” and “managerial incompetence.”

She then asked the judge to give her a life sentence.

Thapar, patient and intent through nearly an hour of final statements, began his own by saying that the courts judge actions, not viewpoints. He cited the 1971 case U.S. v. Cullen, in which future Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens wrote that “if a religious, moral, or political purpose may exculpate illegal behavior,” then anarchy may result.

“I don’t have the wherewithal to judge God’s will,” Thapar said. “I don’t have the wherewithal to determine whether your viewpoints are right or wrong. I’ll leave that to the future.”

* * *

After their bankruptcy meeting, Kirk Garland and his wife, Joann, decided not to stick around the courthouse for in-person interviews with the TV crews that showed up for the activists.

“It’s a joke,” Joann said the next day at their home, either referring to their sentences, the media attention, or the way every plan is working out but theirs. “Well, I’m happy for them. I’m glad they got off scot-free. Because we got a lifetime sentence.”

Kirk hopes his arbitration will be done by summer. “What I want is a home for my family,” he said, a bit of land and a mobile home.

By summer, the activists will have settled into a federal penitentiary to study their Bibles and correspond with their supporters.

By then, maybe God’s plan will be a little clearer. “Don’t know what it is,” Kirk says, or when it’ll unfold, while the activists know exactly what it is, and believe it’s unfolding now.

There is one plan definitely underway. The United States is on track to build a brand-new Uranium Processing Facility at Y-12, at a cost of $6.5 billion, one more investment in safeguarding the nuclear stockpile.

Dan Zak is a feature writer and general assignment reporter based in the Style section. He joined the Post in 2005, after stints as an editorial assistant at Entertainment Weekly and a city-desk reporter and obituary writer at The Buffalo News.
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