Sister Megan Rice is as sweet looking at 84 as her name sounds. But don’t let that fool you.
She has been arrested 40 or 50 times for acts of civil disobedience, and on July 28, 2012 — a quiet Saturday — she and two other aging peaceniks shocked America by carrying out what nuclear experts called the biggest security breach in the history of the nation’s atomic complex.
With flashlights and bolt cutters, they made their way to the inner sanctum of the Oak Ridge nuclear reservation known as the Y-12 National Security Complex where the U.S. keeps crucial stores of uranium and nuclear bomb parts — an area dubbed the Fort Knox of Uranium.
They were not there as terrorists or to steal or detonate anything. Once there, they read scriptures and splashed blood on the new windowless, half-billion dollar altar to war — a bunker encircled by giant guard towers, razor wire, armed guards, video cameras, motion sensors and signs that read “Deadly force is authorized.”
Rather than looking to make a bomb, they were looking to make a point. One of peace.
And in doing so, they blew a whistle on just how shabby our top-secret homeland security really is — right here in Tennessee, which should be nicknamed the Nuke State rather than the Volunteer State.
As the New York Times put it two years ago, the three seniors “made nuclear theft seem only a little more challenging than a romp in the Tennessee woods.”
On Tuesday, Sister Megan and her companions — one 58 and the other 65 — were sentenced in U.S. District Court on federal charges of sabotaging the plant and damaging federal property. The men will serve about five years. Sister Megan asked for the maximum sentence but was ordered to serve about three years. She probably should be nominated for and win the Nobel Peace Prize.
“We spend more on nuclear arms than on the departments of education, health, transportation, disaster relief and a number of other government agencies that I can’t remember,” she has said.
The U.S. Department of Energy spends about $1 billion a year just for security for nuclear materials, and the Y-12 plant is supposed to be one of the world’s most secure facilities. Still, three old people carrying bolt cutters, spray paint, candles and a Bible were there for hours — putting peace symbols and slogans on a building that stores more than 100 tons of highly enriched uranium, a material that could make thousands of atom bombs or be used by intruders to create a nuclear explosion on the spot.
As slowly as these three oldsters were — lugging their bolt cutters and protest supplies — they did not draw a quick response. Over the years, security officers at the site had complained that alarms go off frequently, triggered by raccoons and deer. Suffice it to say, heads rolled and DOE reappraised security measures all across its nuclear weapons program.
Sister Megan did us a favor, and the nation needs more whistle blowers like her.
Unlike Edward Snowden, she gave away no secrets and endangered no lives. Like Snowden, she made it clear that, far too often, Americans are lulled to believe all is well when it is not. And unlike Snowden, she was willing to face her accusers to make her point. She didn’t go bartering information for asylum in one or more enemy countries.
We need more whistle blowers like Sister Megan in public and private industry, too. Or even just more nosy and noisy workers and neighbors.
For decades, TVA operated two nuclear plants — Sequoyah and Watts Bar — upriver of Chattanooga with critical cooling switches and pumps that would have been under water in the event of severe flooding. When looking to re-license the incomplete Bellefonte Nuclear Plant, TVA realized the flooding levels of the river had been both miscalculated and changed over the years. Individuals with concerns finally gained attention from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and TVA undertook a series of fixes, with NRC oversight, to keep the plants safe in the event of extreme flooding.
Had there been a whistle blower or two in Harriman, Tenn., before 2008, perhaps the Kingston Ash Spill might have been avoided. Had there been one in Charleston, W.V., in recent years, perhaps the tanks holding a dangerous coal-washing chemical might have been fixed before leaks spilled into the Elk River and tainted the drinking water of 3 million people.
We don’t live in an inherently safe world. Quite the contrary.
That’s why we need more people like Sister Megan. We need more people who have no intent to harm anything other than our own false sense of safety.