One wouldn't imagine an 84-year-old nun and a nuclear plant's safety manager having much in common, but whistleblowers and anti-nuclear protesters have provoked harsh rebuke after shedding light on shocking security failures at U.S. nuclear sites.
On Tuesday, Sister Megan Rice was sentenced to nearly three years in prison for breaking into a federal nuclear facility in Oak Ridge, Tenn. Her fellow Catholic activists, Greg Boertje-Obed and Michael Walli, were sentenced to more than five years in prison because of their history of civil disobedience.
The protesters were also ordered to pay $53,000 for damaging federal property.
The trio doesn't deny trespassing, but most observers of the case against them agree that their actions demonstrated frightening security vulnerabilities at the Y-12 National Security Complex, where they roamed for two hours before being found. (The breach led to increased patrols and firings.)
Rice and her cohorts broke into the "Fort Knox of uranium" two years ago, cutting through fences and vandalizing a bunker that held weapons-grade uranium. The group hung banners, wrote messages such as "The fruit of justice is peace," and splashed human blood on the outside of the building, using baby bottles to "represent the blood of children" the weapons spill.
Officials have maintained that there was never any threat that they would get ahold of bomb-making materials.
The sentencing underscores the plight of anti-nuclear activists and whistleblowers who expose the shortcomings of nuclear security.
“The crime they committed was exposing just how bad security is at one of the most secure facilities in the world, by breaking in and hanging out for a few hours,” said Michael Mariotte of the anti-nuclear group Nuclear Information and Resource Service. “That was a tremendous embarrassment to the government.”
A sister of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus, Rice said the government spends too much money on weapons and the military. Boertje-Obed and Walli said they were doing God’s work by raising awareness about nuclear weapons, The Huffington Post reports.
Their sentencing came the same day a whistleblower at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Benton, Wash., lost her job.
URS Corp. fired Donna Busche after she voiced safety concerns about a $12 billion plant that would turn Hanford's nuclear waste into glass. Hanford, a former nuclear weapons site built in the 1940s, holds nearly 56 million gallons of radioactive nuclear waste, some of which is leaking and spilling into the nearby Columbia River. The Department of Energy selected URS Corp. to manage the nuclear cleanup, which costs about $2 billion annually.
Busche alleges she was the victim of retaliation and has filed a claim with the federal government. She had worked as a manager of environmental and nuclear safety at Hanford for nearly five years, according to The Associated Press.
URS issued a statement on Tuesday, saying the company encourages employees to raise concerns about safety.
"We do not agree with her assertions that she suffered retaliation or was otherwise treated unfairly," the company said. "Ms. Busche's allegations will not withstand scrutiny."
Walter Tamosaitis, head of research at URS, was fired in 2011 after he similarly voiced concerns over the multibillion-dollar plant's design. Construction has since been halted, owing to safety concerns.
The pair's critiques are consistent with a host of complaints related to the country's most polluted nuclear weapons production site, said Tom Carpenter of the watchdog group Hanford Challenge. Carpenter called the latest firing a “war on whistleblowers.”
"We're punishing the people who are doing brave, courageous things," he told TakePart. "Who else is going to raise these concerns?"
Two U.S. senators came to Tamosaitis’ aid last October, when they criticized the Energy Department for his dismissal. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Sen. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., told Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz that firing employees who raised security concerns would reflect poorly on the department.
“Simply put, if you do not take immediate action to halt URS's retaliatory dismissal of Dr. Tamosaitis and ongoing retaliatory acts against other employees…who have raised safety concerns, your efforts to improve the department's safety culture will lack all credibility,” Markey wrote.
Wyden once again criticized the Energy Department on Wednesday following Busche’s dismissal, labeling it “part of the problem.” The senator is calling for an investigation into “unchecked retaliation against whistleblowers who have revealed major, legitimate risks to public safety."