Sentencing of Y-12 Peace Activists

by Coralie Farlee, WILPF-US DC Branch

Gregory Boertje-Obed, Megan Rice and Michael Walli, in July 2012, walked into the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee and up to the Highly Enriched Uranium Maintenance Facility – the building that stores the US’s supply of weapons grade uranium. On February 18, 2014, they were sentenced to 5 years, 3 years, and 5 years, respectively. This was known as the Transform Now Plowshares action, part of the non-violent civil resistance Plowshares movement by people of faith to transform weapons into real, life-giving alternatives, to build true peace.  At the time of their action in 2012, they indicated that the Y-12 facility was chosen because of its plans for a new multi-billion dollar H-bomb factory – the Uranium Processing Facility (UPF).  The sole purpose of the UPF (cost now estimated at $19 billion) is to produce thermonuclear cores for H-bombs and ballistic missile warheads.

The intent of Gregory, Megan, and Michael was to publicize the trillions of US dollars that continue to be spent on nuclear weapons in the US since World War II.  [The US possesses over 4600 active nuclear weapons plus another 3,000 awaiting dismantlement.  To abide by the New START treaty with Russia, the US must reduce the 1,950 strategically deployed high-alert nuclear weapons to 1,500 by 2018.  But, in 2010, in order to obtain ratification by the Senate, President Obama promised an additional $85 billion through 2020 for modernizing the US stockpile.]  

At the trial in May, 2013, the three Plowshares activists were convicted (in a jury trial, requested by the three) on felony charges of depredation of property and sabotage which could have resulted in 30 years in prison for each person.    

Megan Rice, in her allocution at the February  sentencing hearing, indicated:  “This trial has exposed, quite gratuitously, in the evidence, thanks to the prosecution’s witnesses, the truth about what is happening.  That this one facility is part of . . . one, huge, bomb factory, of which Y-12 is but one very significant part.

“We are all grateful . . . that the details of the goings-on at Y-12 were revealed by the witnesses for the government, details kept mostly secret, over nigh to 70 years – the specific warheads being ‘enhanced’ and ‘modernized’ – the enormous quantities of highly enriched uranium material (HEUM) produced and stored there, in the very building we were able, almost unknowingly, to reach, to touch, and to label with statements and symbols of truth.   This alerted Y-12 workers to what has been kept secret for nearly 70 years.

“The direct fall-out from gross misspending to maintain a nuclear industrial complex – of ten trillions of dollars over these last 70 years.  An economic system devoid of any outcome other than death, poverty for the masses in a debt-ridden country, with obscene wealth for the less than 1% of the people – individuals wealthier than the GNP of entire countries and I would ask, from war-profiteering?

” This very document [charges by the contractor to repair damages from the break-in and ensure security] is self-incriminating evidence for all  the world to see.  It represents in microcosm an enormous cloud of deception, exaggerated expenditures in time, energy and cost under which Y-12 has hidden these 70 years since its inception.  It reveals but a sample of the extortion by unaccounted for or unaccountable profiteering and blatant miscalculation over Y-12’s entire evolution till today. – Draconian extortion of the hard-earned labor of the people in this country over the last 70 years, and perhaps before.”

Megan summarized their position by stating that “the true criminals are those who produce or use nuclear arms; not those who are conducting civil resistance and are obeying the law by resisting nuclear arms and preventing war crimes by the government.”

Gregory had earlier summarized his and their position by indicating that “the people . . . recognize that our government disrespects the law; President Obama should be reducing nuclear weapons to ZERO, but, instead, in order to get the New START Treaty signed, he has agreed to build three new factories for the next 70 years:  a CLEAR VIOLATION OF THE LAW [treaty].” He also pointed out that his previous convictions and prison stays had not dissuaded him from engaging in further non-violent civil resistance.

Michael also had referred to the “use of law by the government for criminal uses [i.e., “modernizing”/re-building nuclear weapons] and called for a total worldwide/global demilitarization [to save the earth].

He also referred to the law codified by the Nuremberg Principles which forbid complicity in ongoing crimes against peace, crimes against humanity, and war crimes [such as the planning and preparation of mass destruction].

Judge Thapar, at the pre-trial hearing had ruled out the presentation of a law-based defense, or a “defense of necessity”, i.e., that whether the production of nuclear weapons is unlawful was not relevant and “would confuse the jury.”  [In previous cases, when judges have allowed  juries to consider the outlaw status of nuclear weapons, they regularly find protestors “not guilty by reason of justification.”]

Judge Thapar [at the initial January sentencing hearing] had also sentenced them to pay the $53,000 in contractor’s fees for materials and fees for repairing and repainting and ensuring that the premises were secure.  This is being challenged on the grounds of excessive costs and whether the government has actually paid the invoice that the contractor presented.

In his sentencing statements, Judge Thapar appeared to deliberate over issues such as that they had not used illegal weapons; other significant and recent arrests and prison time; statements of character witnesses; that they have done various community-enriching activities; but that he could not sentence based on beliefs, but only on conduct.   

The Judge also added that “there are plenty of ways for you to protest and deliver your message without breaking the law.” Also: “If you people would just put this time and energy into working for the change you want in the political system, you might get the change you seek.”  Ralph Hutchinson, coordinator of the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance, in an eloquent statement available on the OREPA website, responded:  “Really, Judge” and enumerated the various ways that he and colleagues have engaged in non-violent protests, demonstrations; signing petitions, writing letters, as well as meeting with officials, interviews on various media, and other approaches vs. non-violent direct action and vs. major lobbying by contractors and others who are in support of  continuing the US nuclear weapons program.

Appeals are proceeding to dismiss the $53,000 charge and to challenge the charge and conviction of sabotage.  

Sources used and available for additional information:; Dan Zak articles in The Washington Post;;; Atomic City Underground; personal notes at sentencing trials. Thanks, also, for comments by Paul Magno.

Photo: Transform Now Three: Gregory Boertje-Obed, Megan Rice and Michael Walli

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