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Bible-Toting Peaceniks Harm Nuclear Security?

May 8, 2013
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Three gray-haired peace activists who broke into a Tennessee facility containing uranium for nuclear bombs were accused at their trial Tuesday of endangering national security—apparently by revealing that the facility’s security was a joke.

Had the two men and one woman been terrorists rather than members of a faith-based anti-weapons organization called Transform Now Plowshares, horrible things could have happened. The facility they targeted, the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, produces and stores highly enriched uranium intended for nuclear weapons.

Steven Erhart, site manager for the complex, claimed that something horrible did happen. Testifying in U.S. District Court in Knoxville, Tennessee, on Tuesday, the first day of the activists’ trial, Erhart said:

The 15-day shutdown put everything behind in terms of nuclear operations. It hurt our credibility, and that credibility is tied to nuclear deterrence.

In other words, the activists—a 57-year-old house painter, a 63-year-old drifter, and an 82-year-old Catholic nun—revealed to potential U.S. enemies that dangerously radioactive material was guarded by the Keystone Kops. For that, the government contends, the ones who should be punished most severely are the activists, not the people in charge of security.

According to the Washington Post, there have been reassignments and forced retirements, but only one person has been fired because of the security inadequacies: Kirk Garland. He was the guard who first stopped the intruders on July 28, 2012, after they had cut four chain-link fences, walked through the complex for several hours, spray-painted slogans on a warehouse, and banged on the warehouse with hammers.

Garland, who had worked in nuclear security for nearly 30 years, testified that he knew from experience with previous protesters that the vandals posed no real threat. “They told me they were sent from God and they wanted to read a statement to me,” he said. “They also read to me from the Bible—Isaiah, if I recall correctly.” Garland was fired for not dealing with the trio more aggressively.

Under cross-examination, according to Reuters, Erhart admitted that the breach revealed “systemic issues and problems with security that should have been detected.” A report last August by an Energy Department inspector general put it more strongly, describing “troubling displays of ineptitude.”

The activists face felony charges of intending to injure the national defense and causing more than $1,000 in damage to federal property. The maximum sentence could be 30 years in prison.

The Post reported that the government said it spent at least $8,531.67 to fix the damage. The nun, Megan Rice (who once studied cellular biology and radioactivity at Boston College and Harvard Medical School), seemed to find that total inflated. She testified: “I could’ve repaired it.”

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