Y-12 protesters plead not guilty to new charge, face more jail time

Megan Rice and Michael R. Walli

Anti-nuclear weapons activists Megan Rice, left, and Michael R. Walli leave U.S. District Court in Knoxville after pleading not guilty Thursday morning to three counts of trespassing, property depredation, and property destruction at the Y-12 National Security Complex. A third protester, Greg Boertje-Obed, remains jailed in Blount County.

Note: This story was last updated at 1:51 a.m. Aug. 10.

KNOXVILLE—A new felony property depredation charge and the possibility of more jail time have been added to two earlier charges filed against three anti-nuclear weapons activists arrested in July near a uranium storage building at the Y-12 National Security Complex.

The defendants—Greg Boertje-Obed, Megan Rice, and Michael R. Walli—are accused of sneaking into Y-12 before dawn July 28, cutting through three fences, and setting off alarms before spraying paint and splashing blood on the Highly Enriched Uranium Materials Facility, where bomb-grade uranium is stored.

The new charge, contained in a three-count grand jury indictment filed Tuesday, carries a prison sentence of up to 10 years. The three activists pleaded not guilty to all three counts during a Thursday morning arraignment in U.S. District Court in Knoxville.

Besides property depredation, Boertje-Obed, Rice, and Walli are also accused of misdemeanor trespassing and felony property destruction.

They now face potential penalties of up to 16 years in jail and $600,000 in fines. An Oct. 10 trial has been scheduled before U.S. District Court Judge Thomas W. Phillips.

Rice, 82, and Walli, 63, have been released from the Blount County Corrections Facility after promising to follow certain conditions. They must stay off government property, including Y-12, abide by travel restrictions, and appear in court when required. Rice had to surrender her passport.

She and Walli went to live at the Dorothy Day Catholic Worker in Washington, D.C.

Boertje-Obed, 57, waived his right to a detention hearing during an Aug. 3 court appearance, and he remains jailed in Blount County.

As he has done before, Boertje-Obed at first declined to enter a plea Thursday.

“I plead for the disarming of all weapons and hearts,” said Boertje-Obed, who is representing himself in court and was shackled at his feet, waist, and hands. “I plead for the transforming of our nation.”

But U.S. Magistrate Judge C. Clifford Shirley warned Boertje-Obed to follow courtroom rules.

“This is not the time for making statements,” he said before Boertje-Obed pleaded not guilty.

After the arraignment, the protesters and their supporters suggested they were focused not on the unprecedented security breach at Y-12, but rather on their opposition to the work conducted at the 811-acre plant, the nation’s main production facility for many nuclear weapons components.

“All we want is the truth to come out about the criminality of nuclear weapons and their fallout on this planet for 70 years,” Rice said.

“I have an obligation … to oppose the crimes committed by the United States government,” Walli said.

They have had supporters in the courtroom and in Oak Ridge during the past two weeks, including members of the nonprofit Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance. Some drove or rode bicycles from as far away as Ohio and Michigan to take part in a series of annual OREPA events this week, including a Y-12 vigil and protest on Sunday and Monday.

The OREPA events commemorated the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, in August 1945, near the end of World War II, and opposed plans to build a uranium processing facility, or UPF, at Y-12. Uranium for the bomb dropped on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945, was enriched at Y-12.

OREPA Coordinator Ralph Hutchison said the demand for nuclear weapons is going down while the demand for dismantlement is going up, and the multi-billion-dollar UPF could be a “huge white elephant.”

Meanwhile, the repercussions of the unprecedented security breach at Y-12 continue to reverberate. Nuclear operations have been temporarily halted, workers have had to undergo more security training, and some security contractor employees have been suspended or removed.

The activists called their intrusion Transform Now Plowshares, and the security breach has captured national media attention and raised questions about the plant’s security system.

Changes have also been made at B&W Y-12, the plant’s management and operating contractor. Rod Johnson, deputy general manager for B&W Pantex in Texas, has been assigned to B&W Y‑12 as the deputy general manager for security, spokeswoman Ellen Boatner said Wednesday. He is expected to lead the effort to “re-establish the security posture” at Y-12.

Johnson will report to Darrel Kohlhorst, B&W Y‑12 president and general manager. B&W Y-12 operates Y-12 for the National Nuclear Security Administration.

And Tom Hayden, the former deputy director of Safeguards, Security, and Emergency Services, has been named as its acting director. He will replace Butch Clements, who is retiring. Hayden will report to Johnson, and security will now report directly to Johnson as well, Boatner said.

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