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April 17, 2014

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Judge to sentence nun in nuke plant break-in

Updated Tuesday, Feb. 18, 2014 | 1:55 p.m.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — An 84-year-old nun and two other peace activists will learn Tuesday how much time they will serve in prison for breaking into a Tennessee complex that holds the nation's primary supply of bomb-grade uranium.

Megan Rice, Greg Boertje-Obed (bohr-CHEE' OH'-bed) and Michael Walli face between six and nine years in prison, but their attorneys say they should be sentenced to time-served, or about nine months, because of their record of goodwill throughout their lives.

Officials claimed there was never any danger of the protesters reaching materials that could be detonated or used to assemble a dirty bomb, but the break-in raised serious questions about security at a place once known as the "Fort Knox of uranium."

On July 28, 2012, the activists cut through three fences for the nuclear weapons plant in Oak Ridge, before reaching a $548 million storage bunker that holds bomb-grade uranium. They splashed blood on a bunker wall and painted messages such as, "The fruit of justice is peace."

When security finally arrived, guards found the three activists hanging banners, singing and offering to break bread with them. The protesters reportedly also offered to share a Bible, candles and white roses with the guards.

Although the protesters had set off alarms, they were able to spend more than two hours inside the restricted area before they were caught.

The Department of Energy's inspector general wrote a scathing report on the security failures that allowed the activists to reach the bunker, and the security contractor was later fired.

Some government officials praised the activists for exposing the facility's weaknesses. But prosecutors declined to show leniency, instead pursing serious felony charges.

At trial and during the sentencing phase Tuesday, prosecutors argued the intrusion was a serious security breach that continued to disrupt operations at the Y-12 National Security Complex even months later.

Attorneys for Rice and Walli, 65, both of Washington, D.C., and Boertje-Obed, 58, of Duluth, Minn., said the protesters were engaged in a symbolic act meant to bring attention to America's stockpile of nuclear weapons, which they view as both immoral and illegal under international law.

"What I'm hopeful for is that people really could appreciate what he did and why he did it and who he did it for. He did it for all of us," Boertje-Obed's wife, Michele Naar-Obed, said before the hearing.

Rice testified at trial that she was surprised the group made it all the way to the interior of the secured zone without being challenged and that plant operations were suspended.

"That stunned me," she said. "I can't believe they shut down the whole place."

They were found guilty on May 8, 2013, of sabotaging the plant and damaging federal property.

At the first part of the sentencing hearing three weeks ago, more than 100 supporters filled the courtroom and an overflow room where they watched the proceedings on a video feed. Friends of the defendants testified to their good characters and kind hearts, saying the three had dedicated their lives to pursuing peace and serving the poor.

That hearing was abruptly shut down when the federal court house was closed because of snow, but not before U.S. District Judge Amul Thapar ruled the three had to pay full restitution of nearly $53,000 for their actions.