Last summer, in the dead of night, three peace activists penetrated the exterior of Y-12 in Tennessee, supposedly one of the most secure nuclear-weapons facilities in the United States. A drifter, an 82-year-old nun and a house painter. They face trial next week on charges that fall under the sabotage section of the U.S. criminal code. And if they had been terrorists armed with explosives, intent on mass destruction? That nightmare scenario underlies the government’s response to the intrusion. This is the story of two competing worldviews, of conscience vs. court, of fantasy vs. reality, of history vs. the future.
The devil was just over Pine Ridge.
From the deserted parking lot on the edge of town, the three servants of God looked into darkness.
They clicked on their flashlights, pushed through the initial thicket of brush and began their trek, aiming for the black wooded slope.
First, the house painter: bearded, calm, quiet.
Second, the Catholic nun: gentle, grandmotherly, short of breath.
Third, the drifter: alert, intense, shouldering supplies.
They crept across the marshy field, led by some combination of God and Google Maps. Behind them was the city of Oak Ridge, Tenn., 30 minutes west of Knoxville. On the other side of Pine Ridge was Bear Creek Valley — cradle of the Y-12 National Security Complex, the “Fort Knox of Uranium,” birthplace of the heart of the atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima 67 years earlier.
It was, the house painter would later recall, as if the Almighty were guiding each step, across 1,000 feet of open field and up an embankment.
By 3 a.m. on Saturday, July 28, 2012, two career peace activists, with eight years jail time between them, and an 82-year-old nun had reached the first obstacle in their two-hour, one-mile hike toward one of the country’s most secure nuclear facilities.
A six-foot chain-link boundary fence bordered a gravel patrol road. Strung along the fence were yellow “No Trespassing” placards threatening a $100,000 fine and up to one year in prison.
The house painter gripped a pair of bolt cutters, fixed the jaws around a link and squeezed. He cut links in three lines, then opened the new flap.
No alarm. No patrol cars.
The nun went through first.
After the two men followed her, they closed the fence with twine, crossed the patrol road and began the 40-degree ascent to the dark crest of the ridge. The crime had started, which meant they were one step closer to justice.
One step closer to rattling the Department of Energy.
One step closer to assailing the nation’s storied nuclear identity.
One step closer to changing their lives and the lives of the people on the other side of the slope — including the first man they would meet once they cut through three more fences and entered the kill zone.
‘… and the earth will shake’
In those same woods, around 1900, a middle-aged ascetic named John Hendrix gazed up at the sky and heard a voice like a clap of thunder.
The voice told Hendrix to sleep in the woods for 40 nights. So he did. And he had a vision of the future, according to “The Oak Ridge Story,” a 1950 book by George O. Robinson Jr.
“And I tell you,” Hendrix said to his farming community after his retreat, “Bear Creek Valley some day will be filled with great buildings and factories and they will help toward winning the greatest war that ever will be. . . . They will be building things and there will be great noise and confusion and the earth will shake.”
Hendrix often summited Pine Ridge, Robinson wrote, to pray over the vista of peach orchards and log cabins.
“I’ve seen it,” was his refrain. “It’s coming.”
On Nov. 11, 1942, decades after Hendrix’s death, a letter from the government arrived at the home of his son: “The War Department intends to take possession of your farm Dec. 1, 1942. . . . Your fullest cooperation will be a material aid to the War Effort.”
The government paid Curtis Allen Hendrix $850 for his 60-acre farm, which would be overtaken by the Manhattan Project, the country’s race to build an atomic bomb before Hitler did. Three thousand homesteaders were displaced by the government, which then built a city from scratch by laying 200 miles of road, constructing 44,000 dwelling units and importing 75,000 workers: steelmen from Pennsylvania, machinists and woodworkers from Michigan, riveters and physicists and stenographers and chemists from coast to coast. The 14-square-mile “Secret City” of Oak Ridge was forested with billboards that said “Keep mum about this job” and “We will win in ’44 with your help.”
Scores of East Tennessee high school girls were trained to operate the dials on complex machinery at the Y-12 site. They didn’t know that each flick of their wrists aided the gram-by-gram production of U-235, the uranium isotope that can sustain the chain reaction of fission necessary to create a nuclear explosion.
The science seems simple enough: When a neutron strikes the nucleus of a U-235 atom, the nucleus splits and releases thermal energy and more neutrons, which in turn strike and split more uranium nuclei, and on and on, in an instant, until . . .
The biggest boom, from the smallest of particles.
Around the clock for 18 months, the Secret City hummed and hustled. Hendrix, his vision borne out, was posthumously deemed the Prophet of Oak Ridge. For most townspeople, the full nature of their mission became clear only in bold newspaper ink on Aug. 6, 1945.
“ATOMIC SUPER-BOMB, MADE AT OAK RIDGE, STRIKES JAPAN,” announced the Knoxville News-Sentinel.
It was into this land and history that outsiders intruded 67 years later: Sister Megan Gillespie Rice, now 83; drifter Michael Robin Walli, now 64; and house painter Gregory Irwin Boertje-Obed, 57.
They, like Hendrix, had a vision.
They, like Hendrix, can come off a little batty.
Michael, though fiercely intelligent, often departs on tirades about the Antichrist.
Sister Megan, adamant about not harming any living thing, vowed that if they were attacked by guard dogs inside the complex she would not even raise her hands in self-defense.
Greg is so meek in demeanor that it’s hard to imagine him wielding cutlery, let alone bolt cutters.
Hendrix envisioned the improbable construction of a wartime city.
Michael, Sister Megan and Greg envision its improbable dismantlement.
With elbow grease and blind faith, they would make a symbolic incursion to defeat the site’s $150 million-a-year security operation. They would mortify the nation’s nuclear weapons programs, which since 1940 has cost at least $9.8 trillion in 2013 dollars — costlier than all other government expenditures except Social Security and non-nuclear defense programs, according to nuclear weapons policy analyst Stephen Schwartz’s recent update of his 1998 Brookings Institution audit.
In short: Nuclear weapons have been the United States’ third-highest national priority since World War II, in terms of dollars, and we spend a fortune every year to manage and secure them. Yet a crucial facility in this nuclear enterprise “wasn’t even nun-proofed, much less terrorist-proofed,” as a Tennessee congressman would put it in a February hearing on the break-in, which shut down Y-12 site operations for two weeks.
This is how Congress describes the intrusion and fallout: “Embarrassing.” “Astonishing.” “Unprecedented.”
This is how Greg, Michael and Sister Megan describe it: “God’s will.” “Victory.” “A miracle.” Another step toward the eradication of immoral weapons.
When superimposed on the small-town history of Oak Ridge or the quotidian mechanics of federal Washington, their anti-nuclear beliefs can look heroic or treasonous. Nuclear bombs are existential weaponry. They ignite existential debates. Paradoxes proliferate. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction, sometimes unclear at first.
Sometimes one must step away from lawfulness in the service of a greater good.
Sometimes the very thing that keeps us safe is the one thing that can exterminate us.
Sometimes we bargain over the lesser of two evils.
What is unambiguous: The nun, the drifter and the house painter have been charged with two felonies whose combined maximum sentence is 30 years in prison. One of these felonies is rarely leveled against civilians: “intent to injure, interfere with, or obstruct the national defense of the United States,” as written under the “Sabotage” chapter of the U.S. Code.
Their jury trial is scheduled to begin May 7 in Knoxville.
The defendants do not view it as their trial, even though they proudly admit to trespassing and damaging government property. By exposing what they believe to be the fallacy of national security, by smuggling their anti-war message into the judicial system through the back door, they believe they are putting the country on trial.
The nun plodded up the steep and densely wooded ridge.
In front of her was the painter, behind her the drifter and the boundary fence. Pathless, they snaked slowly in wide turns to ease the climb, pausing often so she could catch her breath.
The Holy Spirit directs a person to what is right and what is possible, the nun thought, and this was possible.
Her parents taught her that life is about moving toward one’s purpose. She had been working her way toward this climb since the age of 9, when she learned her family’s next-door neighbor in New York City was a Columbia University biophysicist privy to the secret Manhattan project.
She remembers Pearl Harbor and covering her eyes when the newsreels played war footage before matinees at Trans-Lux movie theaters in Manhattan.
She remembers her obstetrician father, who spoke of impoverished patients at Bellevue Hospital; her mother, whose PhD thesis explored the Catholic opinion on slavery; and her uncle, Walter Hooke, a Marine who was yoked with “the terrible weight of knowing” after surveying the decimation of Nagasaki, where all that survived in the city’s cathedral was a scorched wood statue of the Virgin Mary.
She remembers committing as a teenager to the teaching order Sisters of the Holy Child Jesus because of their work in Africa, and learning at Boston College how radioactivity affects human cells.
The servants of God stopped to rest.
A dog barked in the distance. From town? From over the ridge?
She had known danger. Kneeling down to block traffic at the entrance to the Nevada Test Site in the ’80s.
She had known hardship. Sleeping in classrooms in rural east Nigeria. No running water, no electricity.
She had known Sister Anne Montgomery, who, in 2009 at 83, broke into Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor, which harbors nuclear submarines, and was convicted, with four others, of trespassing and damaging federal property.
How can I get involved? Sister Megan asked Sister Anne after the trial.
Call Greg Boertje-Obed, Sister Anne said.
And now there she was, an old lady in sturdy shoes, reaching the limits of her mortal energy at the top of Pine Ridge with Greg, about 90 minutes into the mission. There was the vista over which the Prophet of Oak Ridge had prayed more than a century before, where a national security complex now winked in the darkness.
There was still a slope to descend, and three more fences to cut through. The plan was to hike along the ridge, breach the fences away from the facility’s guard towers and then walk casually toward the Highly Enriched Uranium Materials Facility, which houses the nation’s cache of highly enriched uranium — an estimated 400 tons of it, racked in cans floor-to-ceiling across 110,000 square feet.
Inside the building was enough radioactive material to fuel over 10,000 nuclear bombs, which would end civilization many times over.
Sister Megan was tired and fading with the night, so they recalibrated.
They started down the slope immediately.
Once clear of the trees, they would head for the first building they saw.
The belly of the beast
Mission planning involved searching the Bible and the Internet.
All of the relevant information on Y-12’s layout was available online. All of the relevant motivation was available in the books of Psalms, Proverbs and Isaiah.
The Y-12 break-in is the latest “Plowshares” disarmament action, a tradition of symbolic and intrepid civil resistance dating to September 1980, when the Berrigan brothers and six others hammered on Minutemen missiles and poured blood on documents at the General Electric weapons plant in King of Prussia, Pa. The Plowshares activists take their name and inspiration from Isaiah 2:4, a verse prophesying a world without war.
A parade of actions, each with its own name, has followed over the years. The Dorothy Day Catholic Worker house in Petworth is home to several Plowshares alumni, including Michael, and a home away from home to Sister Megan, who resides in her order’s residence on Newton Street NE. (Greg lives with his wife and daughter in Duluth, Minn.)
In the context of Plowshares history, the July action was both typical and astounding, says Paul Magno, a Plowshares veteran and a leader of D.C. nonprofit Witness for Peace.
“To me, it goes to not only the over-hype, the over-sell of the whole security mythology, but it goes to what you can do with an act of faith,” Magno says. “God’s people can be faithful and the Red Sea parts and lets them through when there’s no reason to believe that should be possible.”
The action last summer was dubbed “Transform Now Plowshares” because its three participants desire the immediate conversion of all nuclear weaponry from agents of war to resources that benefit mankind.
Michael and Sister Megan live in the world as they believe it should be, not in the world as it is.
Sister Megan doesn’t vote.
“It would mean I would be a citizen of this regime. I am a citizen of the world. I act in consequence.”
Michael derides Washington as the belly of the beast.
“Did you know that the last president who wasn’t a war criminal was Herbert Hoover?”
Says Sister Megan of Michael: “His mind is never still.”
Says Michael of Sister Megan: “She’s a visionary.”
Together they’re like an overactive younger brother and patient older sister. Michael summons the brimstone, Sister Megan the bromide.
When she and Michael retell their story, which they do often to eager foot soldiers of social justice groups, they put it in tidy parable form on PowerPoint: We saw injustice at Y-12, so we broke in to bring truth and attract the world’s attention, and here is the U.S. government’s seven-decade budget for nuclear-weapons infrastructure. After one such presentation, at the weekly “Clarification of Thought” at the Dorothy Day house, a visitor asks about the forces they faced once they made it through the final fence that summer night.
“The first person to really lose his job was this lovely security guard,” says Sister Megan, adding that she hopes to meet him when she, Greg and Michael go to Knoxville for a pre-trial hearing on whether they can offer moral conviction as a defense in court.
The lights of the Antichrist flickered through the trees.
The drifter prayed.
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. For all the glory is yours, and on the last day Jesus will come like this, like a thief in the night, and the warmongering United States will fulfill Isaiah’s prophecy by beating its swords into plowshares.
He had duct-taped the head of his flashlight to reduce the beam to a sliver. On the downward slope of Pine Ridge, he moved in front of the nun, clearing branches and stones from her path. He was just a frail earthen vessel, he believed, but she was a daughter of God. He was her bodyguard.
On his head was a construction hat painted light blue, with “UN” marked on the front. On his breath was the stink of Top brand tobacco. In their backpacks, he and the nun carried twine, matches, candles, a Bible, three hammers, six cans of spray paint, three protest banners, copies of a letter they wished to deliver to Y-12 employees and two emblems of sustenance — a packet of cucumber seeds and a fresh-baked loaf of bread with a cross molded into the top.
And six baby bottles of human blood.
This was easy compared with Vietnam, where he carried briefing boards of heavy hinged plywood out of Phuoc Long province during the Cambodia incursion. Michael was an Army specialist, an expert marksman with an M-14 and M-16. The carpet-bombing from American B-52s still echoes in his head.
“Like thunder, but it didn’t stop.”
He earned a Bronze Star.
He considers himself a war criminal.
He left the Army after two tours, found Jesus, became an ascetic, worked in a homeless shelter in Chicago, stormed the gates of the CIA with 1,500 other activists in April 1987, wound up in Fairfax County’s jail and decided to stay in Washington upon his release.
And now, 45 years after his enlistment, he was at the edge of the woods on the other side of Pine Ridge, the flood-lit expanse of Y-12 in front of him.
As predicted long ago, the valley was filled with great buildings, many rusted and dating to the Manhattan Project. But right in front of them was a vast, new fortress of reinforced concrete with a foundation anchored in bedrock.
As luck, or providence, would have it, this was their original target: the Highly Enriched Uranium Materials Facility, a large part of Y-12’s mission to reduce its physical footprint, improve its safety and modernize its operations.
From the treeline, they watched a patrol SUV pass one way on Bear Creek Road, then the other. Then they walked across the two lanes and approached the first of three eight-foot chain-link fences. This outer fence, with three lines of barbed wire on top, was part of Y-12’s “perimeter intrusion detection and assessment system.”
It was no match for bolt cutters.
The house painter began cutting links in the first fence near a sign that said “Danger: Halt! Deadly force is authorized beyond this point.”
Somewhere on the site, according to the Knoxville News-Sentinel’s nuclear reporter Frank Munger, were Gatling guns capable of firing 3,000 rounds per minute — a fusillade that could reduce a trespasser to pink mist.
The painter pulled back the flap of chain links like a curtain.
The nun entered the kill zone first.
The Secret City
Nestled in a river valley, Oak Ridge looks unremarkable on the surface. Its old town square has been overtaken by a congested turnpike lined with fast food joints, credit unions and parking lots. Cul-de-sacs of single-family homes unfurl up the foggy foothills of the Smoky Mountains.
Roads are named Hickory, Poplar and Whippoorwill, and Manhattan, Palladium and Boeing. Flagpoles clang. The Panera is always packed. Locals pronounce their city “Oh-kridge.”
On a knoll on the front lawn of St. Mary’s Catholic Church, a six-foot marble statue of the Virgin Mary gazes southward over the low-rise downtown, toward Pine Ridge. Her face shaded by dark green mold, the Virgin stands barefoot on a spheroid plinth that represents Earth. This Mary, like most Marys, has her foot on a serpent, but there’s a curious non-biblical icon on the Earth under her toes: a nucleus framed by a whirl of electrons.
The atomic symbol is on the facade of the public high school. It is rendered in stained glass inside the public library. It is on the big green sign that heralds the Y-12 National Security Complex just over Pine Ridge.
At noon on the first Wednesday of every month, the DOE tests its public-warning sirens for three minutes. Every June, reenactors stage the Allied invasion of Normandy in the town park.
Though you haven’t needed a badge to get into the town since 1949, Oak Ridge’s soul hasn’t changed. It’s still a company town, and the company is the government, and the business is bombs.
Its centerpiece, Y-12, has become a large processing shop and warehouse for most of the country’s highly enriched uranium. It’s one of five production sites connected to three research labs under the umbrella of the National Nuclear Security Administration, a semi-autonomous entity within the Department of Energy created in the year 2000 to manage and secure nuclear weapons and non-proliferation programs.
Y-12 processes highly enriched uranium for a variety of purposes, including “life-extension programs” for three classes of warheads and the B61 bomb. The renovation of these weapons programs could take 25 years, officials estimate, and cost $20 billion. The site also dismantles weapons components and “downblends” the highly enriched uranium, reducing its radioactivity for use in research and nuclear reactors.
Weapons, war and secrecy are the city’s economy, its legacy and, for now, its future. Concrete guard stations from the early 1950s lurk on the roadsides. A “commemorative walk” salutes the 43ers — those thousands of people who moved to Oak Ridge at the government’s behest in 1943. One plaque says residents’ work “made possible a weapon that was instrumental in bringing peace to a world anguished by the brutal six-year war in which 54 million people died.”
The activists of Transform Now Plowshares are in West Knoxville in early February, at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church, testifying to the congregation after a Sunday service. Church members ask them how they can claim nonviolence when they destroyed property.
“Maybe the triviality of that destruction comes from a truth that is monstrous,” Sister Megan says. “Those very fences are illegal, and guarding lies and secrecy and corruption and great danger to the world.”
White-haired Lillian Mashburn stands, arms crossed, in the back of the church. She’s thinking of her father, who was an infantryman stationed in the Pacific when Oak Ridge’s uranium fell toward Hiroshima.
“He was saved by that bomb,” Mashburn, a church board member, says after the discussion. “They were told when they landed they would be killed as part of the first wave. . . . There’s a whole generation of people, most of whom would’ve been dead, who were saved.”
What saves Oak Ridge are the dollars that gush from Washington to East Tennessee.
The complex is the second-largest employer in East Tennessee and creates 24,000 indirect jobs, according to the site contractor’s Y-12 Community Relations Council. Eight thousand people go to work there, including contractors, subcontractors, protective-force guards and 80 federal employees of the Department of Energy. For 2014, $1.2 billion was requested by the NNSA for the management and operation of Y-12.
Y-12 is slated to construct a new Uranium Processing Facility, a massive building that will ensure that America’s nuclear arsenal remains operational. Peak construction of the UPF will create 1,500 construction jobs and 5,000 support jobs.
“This community serves the DOE,” says Ralph Hutchison, 56, the coordinator of the nonprofit Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance, whose ultimate goal is to abolish nuclear weapons, which means halting operations at Y-12. “It’s the environment in which they live. It’s the air they breathe.”
The trio stood in a moat of white rocks between the first and second fence.
The complex was lit bright as day.
No one was racing to apprehend them.
The middle fence was intimidating, and wired for something.
This is not going to work, the house painter thought. We are not going to get through this.
He had known doubt before. Greg was a Presbyterian Iowa farm boy who joined the ROTC to afford Tulane University. He went into active duty at Fort Polk in 1981, as the nuclear-freeze movement rallied against President Ronald Reagan’s stockpile buildup. He read Daniel Berrigan.
His government said: Be ready for nuclear war.
The prophet Isaiah said: Do not put your trust in horses and chariots.
He couldn’t reconcile the two. He left the Army as a conscientious objector, he says, and returned to New Orleans in time to hear Berrigan talk about Plowshares actions.
Greg heard an inner voice say, Go in this direction.
Within two years, he was living at Jonah House, the Catholic Worker residence in Baltimore, where he met his wife, Michele. While raising their daughter, they scheduled their protests to make sure that only one of them was facing jail at any given time. His first action was hammering Trident II missile tubes at Quonset Point shipyard in Rhode Island.
Twenty-six years later, a nun would call him up, looking to make her own first action.
And now this middle fence, and the possibility that their mission was over. Surely security cameras had spied them by now. Surely this fence would trip an alarm.
You won’t know unless you try, the inner voice told him.
He began cutting links in the middle fence, severing fiber-optic sensors.
No one came for them.
This is grace, he thought, and he climbed through after the others.
He cut through the last fence, and they were through the Red Sea, and there was nothing between them and the Fort Knox of Uranium.
God is with us, he thought. This is a miracle.
They shook cans of red and black spray paint.
They gripped the baby bottles of blood.
They spray painted the building’s north wall, which was designed to withstand the impact of aircraft but not the words of the Book of Proverbs. They poured and splashed blood that had once been in the veins of a painter-activist named Tom Lewis, one of the Catonsville Nine who, on Hiroshima Day 1987, hammered on the bomb racks of an anti-submarine plane at the South Weymouth Naval Air Station near Boston. In 2008, Lewis died in his sleep, and his blood was frozen so that he might one day participate in one last Plowshares action.
In bright red rivulets, the last of Tom Lewis streaked down the concrete.
They removed the hammers from the drifter’s backpack. “TRANSFORM NOW” was written in red marker on the handle of the claw hammer. Burned into the handle of the small sledge hammer was “Repent! God’s kingdom is at hand!”
They began to strike the pentagonal base of a guard tower at the northwest corner of the building. Chips of concrete fell to the asphalt. Blood dribbled into the scar.
They believed they were also hammering on what had not yet been built. The wide open space to the right of the tower was designated for the Uranium Processing Facility, now projected to cost at least $6.5 billion, a stockpile of money that they wanted spent on life-extension programs for people.
They rang their hammers down on the senselessness of it all.
They waited to be arrested.
In a matter of minutes, a single guard would be sent to investigate.
The quantum theory of physics
Greg is prepping baked potatoes.
Sister Megan is setting silverware.
Michael is carrying armloads of firewood in from outside.
They are gathering for a dinner of salmon, tofu and broccoli with a couple of other members of the Transform Now Plowshares support group at a supporter’s house in south Knoxville. From this home base, in the days before their February pretrial hearing, they bring their anti-bomb evangel to various settings.
At the University of Tennessee, where they are guest speakers in a systems theory class, Greg talks about the diffusion of social responsibility and how he feels personally responsible for nuclear weapons because his taxes have paid for them. Michael, who is wearing a T-shirt that says “GROUND THE DRONES,” calls Y-12 “a failed rogue terrorist state.”
“I think there’s a deafening silence about what’s going on at Y-12,” says student Rochelle Butler, “but I do know people who work there are good people. Why would I believe outsiders rather than people who work there, who I believe to be good?”
“We love these people in a deeply compassionate way,” Sister Megan says of the Y-12 employees. “Our motivation was in solidarity with people who spend their time making nuclear bombs to feed their children. . . . We are all so intertwined and empower each other. A thought creates its own energy. The quantum theory of physics is always at work.”
The theory is at work a couple of days later at Maryville College, where the trio eats pizza with 15 students from a progressive Christian group. “They are each connected to 50 others,” Sister Megan whispers before chatting with music student Chris Hickman.
“I know nothing about the anti-nuclear movement,” Hickman tells her. “I was born in ’92, and it’s kind of an afterthought for my generation.”
Greg, Michael and Sister Megan visit with two dozen people at a meeting of the Presbyterian Peacemaking Committee of East Tennessee.
“Prince of Peace, we thank you for your prophets who’ve spoken your word down through the ages, and we thank you for the prophets among us,” says host Scott Brunger during his opening prayer.
The attendees chat about the fallout from the break-in. Someone asks about what their intrusion has cost taxpayers — at least $15 million in security alterations by the NNSA, according to the Knoxville News Sentinel — and Greg says that they saved taxpayers $12.2 million that was docked from the management contractor’s award fee. Sister Megan again brings up the first guard they encountered inside the facility and how he lost his job. She says how he saved their lives by not escalating the situation.
“I feel very guilty not contacting him,” Sister Megan admits.
The guard’s number is listed.
He’ll answer the phone if you call.
And when you ask about the three people who broke into Y-12 last summer, you can almost hear his grip on the phone tighten as he says: “You mean the people who ruined my life?”
‘I’ve served my country’
Two weeks after the break-in, Kirk Garland was handed a letter from the site’s protective-force contractor that said he “failed” in his responsibilities as a guard on the morning of July 28, 2012. The letter said he showed “blatant disregard for the seriousness of the situation.” It said he was terminated, effective immediately, and his health insurance would expire two days later.
A solid man with a cinnamon-colored mustache, Kirk started working in nuclear security in 1983 at Colorado’s now-shuttered Rocky Flats Plant, which processed plutonium for weapons. For three years, he worked in a similar job at the Pantex Plant in Amarillo, Tex., where nuclear weapons are put together and taken apart. Then he moved to Y-12, where the fuel is processed.
What Oak Ridge built, he says, he was proud to protect.
“In my eyes, after being a guard for 30 years, I feel that I should be treated the same way as somebody who served in Iraq,” says Kirk, 52. “I’ve served my country for 30 years by protecting my nation’s nuclear assets.”
He was four years from retirement, bringing home $85,000 a year with overtime, with a pristine employment record.
The sign on the front door of his modest house says, “This property has been determined to be vacant and abandoned.” He could rescue it from foreclosure, but doesn’t have the money. What he has is a rental home in nearby Clinton, a sick wife, a month’s worth of losing lottery tickets, a 16-year-old daughter who has curtailed her passion for barrel-racing horses, and a small contingent of German shepherds that he raises to sell to police department K-9 units.
“I do okay,” he says, standing in the ransacked backyard of his former home in Lake City, Tenn. “My wife don’t. She can’t come up here. Nothing I can do about it. Thirty years with DOE. And you’re looking at everything.”
Scattered cinder blocks. Sodden heaps of pink insulation. The kennel hauled off by vandals, the small stable stripped of its roof and most of its siding. It had been a good life in Lake City, 20 miles north of Y-12, where he worked for nearly 5 1/2 years until those people, he says, decided to overexert their First Amendment right.
The report on the break-in by the inspector general of the Department of Energy faults Kirk for not pulling his weapon, for not securing the area.
The site’s management contractor, Babcock & Wilcox Technical Services Y-12, faults him for not immobilizing the intruders and for turning his back while they rummaged through their backpacks.
The site’s protective-force contractor, WSI-Oak Ridge, faults him for an “embarrassing” and “casual” response to the intrusion. NNSA officials were “horrified” by surveillance video of Kirk first addressing the intruders from his car, instead of immediately jumping out, and for making assumptions about their intent.
If he had acted too aggressively, on the other hand, Y-12 might have had a dead nun on its hands.
Kirk says there was no reason to unholster his gun, that it was unsafe for one man to try to cuff three people, that an entire patrol team should’ve been dispatched to a zone with multiple alarms. He had previously dealt with peace protesters at Rocky Flats, which is how he knew that the three trespassers were not dangerous, he says. The “blatant disregard,” he says, lies elsewhere.
In fact, the security camera that watched Zone 63, the area of the trio’s incursion, had been out of service for six months, according to a subsequent report from the Department of Energy’s inspector general. At the time of the break-in, there were 56 busted security tools across Y-12, seven broken security cameras surrounding the HEUMF and an average of 2,170 sitewide alarms per day — many caused by wildlife, weather and foliage.
None of this was Kirk’s responsibility.
“In my eyes they’ve ruined my name,” Kirk says of the government and its contractors. “I worked hard. I mean, I put my family second a lot of times to keep this clearance for 30 years, just to have it jerked out from me like that. . . . I think they were embarrassed that an 82-year-old got in that far. And they used me for their scapegoat. They used me to say, ‘Well, he messed it up. We got rid of him.’ But I wasn’t the problem.”
The problem, according to a string of reports over the years from the DOE’s inspector general and the Government Accountability Office, was a lax security culture and hands-off federal oversight. The problem was “a culture of compliance, as opposed to a culture of performance,” according to a B&W Y-12’s post-mortem of what became known internally as “the Security Event.” A GAO report released, coincidentally, three days after the break-in admonished the NNSA for cost overruns, mismanagement and an absentee relationship with contractors.
To date, Kirk is the only individual to have been fired outright because of the incident. The guards who failed to detect and initiate a proper response to the breach were suspended, and the supervising lieutenant was disciplined. B&W Y-12 removed four managers, allowing the top two to formally retire. Four federal officials with security oversight jobs were reassigned. The leaders of the guard force retired or were reassigned, says Paul Donahue, chief executive of G4S Government Solutions, the parent company of the protective force company, which lost its contract. The management and operations contractor lost $12.2 million of its award incentive fee, and the same firms, with different partners, have bid on a new 10-year contract for both Y-12 and Pantex worth $23 billion.
Kirk has a car repairman dogging him for a $1,000 debt that he can’t pay. In March, he took a guard job at a county jail that he says pays $24,000 a year. His case is slated for arbitration this fall through the International Guards Union of America.
He’s reached for his Baptist faith to temper his anger. He attends services at Faith Promise, a massive church on a hill on the outskirts of Oak Ridge. He doesn’t understand how law-breaking activists can be inspired by the same God that guides his life down the straight and narrow.
“I’ve got to sit down and ask a priest,” Kirk says. “Doing the Lord’s work is not protesting and getting arrested. You don’t get to heaven on your works anyway. You get to heaven on salvation. . . . God’s got a different plan for me. Everything happens in his timing, whenever he’s ready to move us along.”
When told that Sister Megan thinks he saved her life by not escalating the situation — that, in fact, he was her salvation — Kirk is speechless. His wife is not.
“That’s amazing that she’d make that kind of statement,” scoffs Joann Garland. “She is safe — because of him — to be able to go and do what she’s doing. . . . The joke of it is they came in God’s name. God does not say to break laws. Sorry. God does not say that.”
Scales of justice
If religion gives meaning to the chaos of the cosmos, the law developed alongside to order society’s unruliest parts.
Greg, who represents himself in court, stood behind the microphone and delivered his testimony in monolithic terms.
“So when you build a nuclear weapon, you are planning and preparing to commit mass murder,” he argued in a November pre-trial hearing in Knoxville. “You are giving your assent to the killing of civilians.”
In that precursor episode to The United States of America v. Walli et al, the defense argued that it is illegal for the United States to possess nuclear weapons because their sole purpose is to inflict damage that cannot be contained: Civilians perish en masse, the environment is poisoned for generations and the mere threat of this scenario — even under the guise of deterrence — constitutes “imminent harm” that cannot be ignored for one more minute, let alone successive generations.
After the defense cited the Geneva and Hague conventions and invoked the Nuremberg principles, the government argued that international treaties do not take precedence over laws Congress enacts to ensure national defense, including nuclear weapons programs. At the notion of complicity to war crimes, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey E. Theodore balked.
“They say if they didn’t act, that they are somehow complicit in this ‘illegality,’” Theodore argued in November. “Well, then, therefore, all the people here who have not acted, not [broken] in to Y-12 to stop the ‘illegal’ operations there, then . . . they’re complicit in war crimes, I guess, which is . . . a ludicrous argument.”
William Quigley, the defendants’ pro-bono counsel, told the court his clients should be allowed to testify about their moral imperatives for the break-in.
“The effort to preclude necessity, international law, nuclear policy, God, conscience, history, who knows the other things — I think it’s, it’s inconsistent with our search, our mutual search for the truth,” Quigley said.
After Michael, Greg and Sister Megan refused a plea bargain, the government hit them with the more serious charge under the sabotage act. That led Transform Now Plowshares and its support group to Courtroom 3B of U.S. District Court in downtown Knoxville in Feburary, for a second hearing on obstructing the national defense, scheduled between a case of bank robbery and a case of Social Security fraud.
That morning, Sister Megan has trouble getting through security.
“Any metal on you, sister?” a guard asks during her third run through the metal detector.
“I have titanium in my wrists,” the nun says, then gestures to the X-ray machine. “Do you wear lead vests standing next to this all day? I think you should.”
The support group swells to 25 people and fills all rows on the defense’s side of the courtroom. Ralph Hutchison and folks from the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance are here.
As they await the start of the hearing, the supporters begin singing softly.
“Peace is flo-wing like a riiiii-ver,” they warble from their seats. “Flo-wing out into the deeeeesert.”
Hutchison chuckles. “Oh the judge loves it when they sing,” he says.
In Washington, a congressman asks the nun to please stand up.
“We want to thank you for pointing out some of the problems in our security,” says Rep. Joe L. Barton (R-Tex.).
Another congressman expresses a different kind of gratitude.
“Thank you for your willingness to focus attention on this nuclear weapons buildup that still exists in our world,” says Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), “and how much we need to do something to reduce it.”
A third congressman is incredulous at the nun’s mere presence at this September oversight hearing of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce.
“Why are they even here in this hearing room?” says Rep. Michael C. Burgess (R-Tex.). “Why are they not being held in — in detention somewhere?”
Since July 28, Congress has been sputtering with indignation. Hearings were scheduled on Sept. 12 and 13, Feb. 28 and March 13 so legislators could vocalize how “shocked” and “appalled” they are. The phrase “wake-up call” is uttered and re-uttered. “Peace through strength” becomes a refrain. The word “culture” is used 72 times to explain how a complex, highly funded operation could be so vulnerable. Federal officials at the witness table get lost in a maze of their own jargon. Congress members wonder over and over what would have happened if the intruders had been terrorists, not peace activists. Brig. Gen. Sandra Finan, commander of the Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center, appears several times to present her task force’s findings on “Lessons of the Y-12 Security Failure”: NNSA has muddled lines of authority, and its security culture has “focused on fiscal limitations over effective performance.”
Sister Megan and Michael witness each hearing in sweat pants and parkas. They are lost in the navy thicket of young legislative assistants. On one of these field trips, they get off the Metro at Capitol South station and grimace at the giant Raytheon ads that feature military vehicles and mottos like “Any threat, any mission.”
On Feb. 28, the House Armed Services Committee’s subcommittee on strategic forces tries to sniff out blame.
“And as the chairman correctly pointed out,” says Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) at one point, “it’s hard to find that anybody was punished except the lowest-level guard.”
At a break, Sister Megan approaches one of the expert witnesses, retired Maj. Gen. C. Donald Alston, the former Air Force assistant chief of staff for strategic deterrence and nuclear integration.
“I’ll give this to you,” she says, handing him a folded sheet of white paper. It’s a letter calling for the immediate suspension of funding for the Uranium Processing Facility at Y-12.
“The whole thing can be solved by changing the mission,” Sister Megan says to the major general. “Change the mission, brother.”
“We have a lot of stability in the world because of” nuclear weapons, says Alston, smiling, towering over her in uniform.
“It’s impossible to even secure one,” Sister Megan says. “We can change the mission. It’s possible.”
“Okay,” he says.
“We can have projects that sustain humanity.”
“Okay,” he says, starting to leave the witness table.
“This is the nun,” Michael says, coming to her side.
“Oh,” Alston says, before turning away.
Sister Megan is not concerned with this slight. The world needs positive and negative charges, she says. You can’t have energy without both.
On March 13, during a second hearing in front of the Energy and Commerce’s oversight subcommittee, Rep. Bill Johnson (R-Ohio) cites a 2010 Department of Energy memo in which Deputy Secretary Daniel B. Poneman called for the elimination of “excessive Federal oversight” of contractors and the awarding of “decision-making authorities” to “the lowest level of contractor and Federal management.”
The subcommittee, as a body, wonders if the department had farmed out the stewardship of nuclear assets to contractors who self-police and self-appraise, and therefore continue to collect fees while cutting corners.
“What we were trying to do, sir, was to get rid of the check-box mentality of just looking at paperwork and creating paperwork,” Poneman replies. “To get back to performance testing so we could be better, safer and more secure.”
Sitting just over Poneman’s shoulder at each one of these hearings are two of the people who have put him on this hot seat for the past eight months.
“I appreciate what you did,” a staffer for the Government Accountability Office tells Sister Megan after the hearing adjourns. “But don’t do it again, because I don’t want you to get hurt.”
‘A sheet of sun’
The last shipment of highly enriched uranium bound for Japan left Oak Ridge on July 25, 1945, and arrived two days later on the island of Tinian in the oblivion of the Pacific Ocean. On Aug. 6, a 9,700-pound, 10-foot-long atomic bomb was loaded onto a B-29 bomber, flown 1,500 miles northwest, and dropped over Hiroshima.
Eyes melted from the heads of those who had been looking skyward at the “sheet of sun,” as John Hersey’s “Hiroshima” described the light of the explosion.
Some 160,000 were dead, dying or injured.
Five square miles burned.
“A harnessing of the basic power of the universe,” President Harry Truman announced.
“One of the greatest blunders of history,” wrote physicist Leo Szilard, an architect of the Manhattan Project.
“WAR ENDS,” The Knoxville Journal declared.
Our national complex was just beginning. The bomb created to stop one war imbued all future wars with apocalyptic power. The United States raced Russia to amass nuclear weapons — a peak of 30,000 stateside in the mid-1960s — then began to reduce the stockpile as other nations pursued and attained nuclear capability.
This past January, the Indian government distributed to Kashmiris a nuclear-war advisory that encouraged the building of bunkers.
In March, Secretary of State John F. Kerry told ABC News that “confrontation becomes more possible” if Iran continues its plan to enrich uranium and develop nuclear weaponry.
In April, North Korea publicized its desire to strike the United States, and the White House announced that it had helped the Czech Republic remove its entire stockpile of highly enriched uranium — all 150 pounds of it, or enough for two or three nukes.
The United States possesses roughly 4,650 active nuclear weapons plus another 3,000 awaiting dismantlement, according to the Federation of American Scientists, a non-partisan think tank created by Manhattan Project scientists. To satisfy the New START Treaty with Russia, our 1,950 strategically deployed high-alert nuclear weapons must be reduced to 1,550 by 2018. In order to get the treaty ratified by the Senate in 2010, President Obama promised $85 billion through 2020 for modernizing the U.S. stockpile.
In a time of austerity, our weapons budget is rising as our stockpile is falling.
The officials who lay awake at night worrying how to safeguard Cold War leftovers have a delicate, intricate mission fraught with peril and obstacle.
“We have been running a system a certain way for such a long time and not really thinking about whether it was working or not,” says acting NNSA administrator Neile Miller, charged with overseeing the politically choreographed — and therefore incremental — transition from proliferation to disarmament.
Miller, during an interview in April at the DOE, acknowledges failures in management and says she understands the protester mentality and frustration. But the wish for a nuclear-free world of the future, she says, can distort perception of the policy that guides the world of the present.
“I know people want to believe that everybody here is just of one mind . . . and we’re all somehow of this military-industrial complex — and it just doesn’t work that way,” she says. “ . . . People tend to be religiously for or religiously against. And as a result, they tend to attribute motivations and actions to all sorts of things that, in my personal experience, so very rarely turn out to be anywhere near what’s actually happening.”
Our very national position on nuclear weapons, though, is a paradox.
“As long as nuclear weapons exist,” says the administration’s 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, “the United States will sustain safe, secure, and effective nuclear forces.”
As long as nuclear weapons exist, Sister Megan, Michael, Greg and their fellow activists will hammer on their infrastructure. Incrementalism is the danger, they believe, because the threat is imminent, the consequences are catastrophic and society suffers financially and morally.
And what if these backpack-wearing peaceniks had been terrorists, for whom obtaining highly enriched uranium is the likeliest way to create mass destruction?
With those 20 minutes of uninterrupted access to the site, they could have blown through the doors or walls of the HEUMF with an explosively formed penetrator and rigged an improvised nuclear device using highly enriched uranium and conventional explosives. A 10-kiloton detonation at Y-12 would cause an estimated 60,000 casualties, including 18,000 deaths, in East Tennessee. Radiation would have sickened people over 40 miles.
This worst-case scenario is presented in a yet-to-be-published report on UPF by the watchdog group Project on Government Oversight, which combines a “design basis threat” scenario from the Department of Energy with a Department of Defense hazard-prediction algorithm employed by the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy nonprofit.
NNSA officials, noting classified security measures inside HEUMF, call this worst-case scenario “very, very far-fetched.”
But then so is a nun breaking into the Fort Knox of Uranium.
The intruders who weren’t terrorists admit to their actions.
The legislators have thanked them for initiating security reforms.
The deputy secretary of the Department of Energy said in February — during the Nuclear Deterrence Summit in Arlington — that the intrusion, while “unacceptable,” did not compromise the uranium and therefore did not directly imperil the nation.
The Justice Department has charged the trio with intending to do just that.
So what is really on trial the second week of May?
The limits of the judicial system, or the limits of social-justice actions?
The moral arch of the universe versus the bottom line of governance?
Is it the bargain we strike with ourselves?
In the late afternoon of Friday, July 27, 2012, the guard drove to Y-12, put on his camouflage uniform, embroidered with “Semper Vigil,” and holstered a Sig P226 9 mm on his hip.
Over his 12-hour shift, day became night.
For his last two hours, 4 to 6 a.m., he rotated into a patrol vehicle. Around 4:20 a.m., a three-second tone came over his radio — a low-priority alarm that was cleared by an officer in short order. Soon after, the guard’s cellphone rang.
The cleared alarm keeps bouncing back, his supervising lieutenant said; the alarm station was suggesting “something is not right” in Zone 63, and that a maintenance crew might be at work. The guard was then dispatched to a sector of the security fence that runs around the Highly Enriched Uranium Materials Facility. He arrived there in less than a minute and pulled slowly to the fence in his vehicle. Nothing seemed amiss, until movement caught his eye. He turned his head away from the fence to the HEUMF.
An old woman was walking toward his vehicle, a grizzled man on either side. At first he thought it was a painting crew — it wasn’t uncommon for maintenance to be done overnight — but behind them were three phrases spray-painted red and black onto the white building.
THE FRUIT OF JUSTICE IS PEACE.
PLOWSHARES PLEASE ISAIAH.
WOE TO AN EMPIRE OF BLOOD.
Their hands were up.
Peace protesters, he thought, as his phone rang again.
It was his lieutenant, checking in.
“I’ve got three individuals here who have appeared to have breached our system,” the guard told him, “and they’ve written graffiti all over the walls.”
His lieutenant thought he was kidding.
“I’m telling you what I got. They’re peace protesters. I need backup.”
He then identified himself through the vehicle window and asked the trio: “What are you doing here?
“God led us here,” said one of the men.
“Stop where you’re at,” the guard said, exiting his vehicle.
The old woman bowed to him.
“Keep your hands where I can see them.”
“Will you listen to our message?” she said.
The three began to recite text from a white piece of paper.
“Brothers and sisters, powers that be, we come to you today as friends . . .”
The two men retrieved candles from their backpacks nearby and lit them.
“A loving and compassionate creator invites us to take the urgent and decisive steps to transform the U.S. empire, and this facility, into life-giving alternatives which resolve real problems . . .”
It would be five minutes before another security officer would show up, brandishing an M-16, ready to help cuff the intruders on the ground as they sang “This Little Light of Mine.” It would be another two hours until special agents from the Department of Energy arrested the trespassers and mobilized the wheels of justice, and six hours until the trespassers were booked in the Blount County Jail, and one day until the biblical graffiti was scrubbed clean, and 10 days until the three were charged with “maliciously” attempting to destroy a structure within the Y-12 National Security Complex, and two weeks until the complex reopened and the guard lost his job, and nine months until the trespassers would face trial before a jury of their fellow citizens that would have the power to convict them of intending to endanger the United States.
But for those next five minutes the scene was simple, almost sacramental.
Four servants of God, drawn together by conviction and coincidence, regarded each other as dawn approached.
The Lord may have been there.
The devil, too.
Or maybe human beings colliding in the quantum theory of physics was almighty enough.
Nine men and three women step into the jury box, take their seats and face the three defendants. The jurors— among them an engineer, a nurse, a social worker, a bus driver and a teacher — had deliberated for just under 2 1/2 hours on May 8, 2013, after hearing two days of testimony and arguments at U.S. District Court in downtown Knoxville, Tenn.
They had heard two assistant U.S. attorneys argue that the defendants targeted and intruded onto the nuclear weapons production facility in Oak Ridge in order to disrupt its operations and that such a disruption imperiled national security, which relies on the safety and readiness of the nuclear arsenal.
They had heard three defense attorneys argue that their clients never expected to make it as far as they did, that their goal was to promote the cause of disarmament through symbolic action and that their peaceful intrusion actually improved national security by exposing deficiencies at the Y-12 National Security Complex.
Silent and rapt, supporters of the defendants had watched the proceedings from spectator seating and from an overflow courtroom equipped with a video feed.
The day before, the government had called as a witness the man who first encountered the defendants on site.
“Were they passive?” defense attorney Christopher Irwin asked during cross-examination.
“They were passive,” Kirk Garland said.
The government had also called the top local official for the National Nuclear Security Administration, Steven Erhart, who was used by the attorneys to litigate the final actions of World War II and their reverberating consequences.
You’d agree that the bombs dropped on “Hiroshima and Nagasaki killed tens of thousands?” defense attorney William Quigley had asked Erhart.
“Yes, sir,” Erhart replied.
“The same thing would happen if they were dropped on a civilian center here,” said Quigley, attempting to set the defendants’ actions against an infinitely more destructive hypothetical.
“If used in that manner, yes, sir,” Erhart said.
After a lunch break, assistant U.S. attorney Melissa Kirby asked Erhart: “What event ended World War II?”
“The events we talked about earlier,” Erhart said. “The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”
“And how many American lives were saved” by those events? Kirby asked, prompting murmurs from the courtroom audience.
“I’ve heard . . . ”
“Objection,” said Francis Lloyd Jr., attorney for the nun. “Speculation.”
On the second day of trial, the defendants each took the stand.
The government asked: Do you consider yourself an American?
The nun said: “I consider myself a citizen of the world.”
The government asked: Do you believe the United States should disarm even if other countries do not?
The house painter said: “I believe the U.S. should follow the treaties it has signed.”
The government asked: Have you ever protested nuclear weapons programs in other countries, like China and Russia?
The drifter said: “I am indigent, and I blossom where I was planted.”
At nearly the exact same time that exact same day, on Capitol Hill, the acting administrator of the NNSA called the Y-12 intrusion an “important wake-up call.”
“The severity of the failure of leadership at Y-12 has demanded swift, strong and decisive action by the department,” Neile Miller told a Senate subcommittee during a hearing on strategic forces. “Since the Y-12 incursion, major actions have taken place to improve security immediately, and for the long term.”
Soon after, back in Knoxville, closing arguments began.
The government said a shipment of important materials — due at Y-12 the day of the break-in — had to be diverted because of the site closure.
The defense attorneys said this secret shipment was a red herring, that their clients were scapegoats for embarrassed officials and greedy contractors.
Their “whole mission here is to eradicate nuclear weapons,” assistant U.S. attorney Jeffrey Theodore told the jury, and the nuclear deterrent is “an integral part of our national defense. … Do you excuse what a burglar did because the homeowner was a little lax with security?”
“Three senior citizens showing up with backpacks is a threat to the United States of America?” defense attorney William Quigley asked rhetorically. “That threatens us? I don’t think so. … Getting rid of nuclear weapons does not equal an attack on the national defense of the United States.”
When the jury retired to deliberate at 3:30 p.m., the defendants and dozens of their supporters gathered in a tight circle in the hallway outside the courtroom.
“Peace is flowing like a river,” they sang. In subsequent verses, they substituted “truth” for “peace,” then “love” for “truth,” then “hope” for “love.”
“I thought this was a courthouse, not a church,” a nearby bailiff said to himself.
Then, just before 6 p.m., as the defendants rise to face the jury of their peers, the foreman hands a single sheet of paper to the clerk, who hands it to Judge Amul Thapar, who announces the verdict: “Guilty on all counts.”
The nun’s smiling expression does not change. She turns her palms upward, as if to say, “This is what will be.”
As the jury exits the courtroom, single file, supporters sing softly toward them: “Love, love, love, love. People, we are made for love.”
As the defendants are led, one after the other, out a rear door into custody to await a September sentencing of up to 30 years in prison, supporters wipe away tears and call out their gratitude.
The drifter is handcuffed — “Thank you, Michael!” — and then is gone.
The house painter gives a wave — “Thank you, Greg!” — and then is gone.
The nun blows a kiss — “Thank you, Megan!” — and then is gone.
About this story. The intrusion at Y-12 in Tennessee was re-created for this article through reporting in the city of Oak Ridge, extensive interviews with the three activists and former protective-force guard Kirk Garland, and interviews with federal officials and site employees. This account also draws upon congressional testimony and detailed written reports on the security event from the inspector general of the Department of Energy and the contractor partnership Babcock & Wilcox Technical Services Y-12.