KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- At sentencing for an 84-year-old nun and two fellow Catholic peace activists who stole onto the grounds of the "Fort Knox of uranium," the judge seemed to struggle with how harshly he should treat protesters who authorities say never posed any serious national security threat.
Judge Amul Thapar acknowledged the trio sincerely held their religious beliefs, but also said at Tuesday's sentencing that those beliefs provided no excuse for breaking into the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge. The complex is the nation's primary storehouse for bomb-grade uranium.
Sister Megan Rice was sentenced to just under three years in prison, while Greg Boertje-Obed (bohr-CHEE' OH'-bed) and Michael Walli each received sentences of just over five years. The sentence appeared to be a compromise, less than what the government sought but more than what defense attorneys had hoped for.
During a hearing that lasted for hours, Rice and her co-defendants said they believe it was a miracle from God that let them penetrate the complex and arrive at the most secure portion of the facility before being detected.
"I was acting upon my God-given obligation as a follower of Jesus Christ," Walli, 65, said. "I make no apology. I have no sense of remorse or shame. I would do it again."
All three will spend three years on supervised probation once released. They also were ordered to jointly pay nearly $53,000 in restitution to the government for damage to an exterior wall of a bunker at the complex.
On July 28, 2012, the three activists cut through three fences before reaching a $548 million storage bunker. They hung banners, strung crime-scene tape, splashed blood on the wall and painted slogans on the side of the Highly Enriched Uranium Materials Facility.
Although officials said there was never any danger of the protesters reaching materials that could be detonated or made into a dirty bomb, the break-in raised security questions at the complex and the security contractor was fired.
The facility has been called the "Fort Knox of uranium," and prosecutor Jeff Theodore argued at sentencing that part of the damage inflicted by protesters was to the complex's mystique.
Boertje-Obed, 58, said the best deterrent to further anti-nuclear actions like his would be for the U.S. government to begin abiding by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, a global agreement meant to limit the spread of nuclear weapons.
Rice said the nine months she has spent in jail awaiting sentencing opened her eyes to the suffering of prisoners, many of whom she called victims of an economic system that invests in weapons instead of people. She also said the true criminals are those who produce and protect nuclear arms.
She asked the judge for permission to let a short song be sung "to lighten the atmosphere." He agreed, and she turned to a gallery overflowing with supporters and directed them in singing, "Sacred the land, sacred the water, sacred the sky, holy and true."
Thapar said the defendants' many good works throughout their lives deserved consideration in their sentencing. Rice became a sister in the Society of the Holy Child Jesus at the age of 18 and served for 40 years as a missionary in western Africa teaching science.
Walli served two tours in Vietnam before returning to the U.S. and dedicating his life to peace and serving the poor. Boertje-Obed also served in the Army before committing himself to a life of service and peace.