The Nuclear Nun Goes to Jail

An 82-year-old activist, a carpenter and a Vietnam War vet got 45 years in prison for breaking into a secure nuclear weapons facility and splatter human blood on the uranium storage building.

Linda Davidson/The Washington Post, via Getty

It sounds like the setup for a bad joke: armed with flashlights and bolt cutters, an 82-year-old nun and two accomplices—a carpenter and a Vietnam War veteran—break into one of the most secure nuclear weapons facilities in the country. The trio dodge barbed wire, motion sensors, video cameras and sleepy guards to get to the heart of the plant, where they splatter human blood and spray paint biblical references on the main uranium storage building. When a guard finally arrives on the scene, they break into song and offer him food.

Sister Megan Rice, Michael Walli and Greg Boertje-Obed were arrested at the Oak Ridge nuclear facility in Tennessee early that morning in July 2012. The following May they were convicted of federal sabotage—a charge that carries a maximum sentence of 30 years. Given the non-violent nature of their demonstration, a judge said the sentence would likely be reduced. But the U.S. government is agitating for stiff punishment as the anti-nuclear protesters head to court Tuesday for final sentencing.

U.S. Attorney William Killian declared Rice and her co-conspirators “recidivists and habitual offenders” whose crimes “warrant serious sentences.” And while 11,000 people have signed a petition calling for Sister Rice’s acquittal, Killian said advanced age and religious affiliation shouldn’t blunt punishment. Meanwhile, a spokeswoman for the Society of the Holy Child Jesus, the Catholic order of which Rice is a member, told The Guardian that these are indeed mitigating factors, and Rice’s sentence should be significantly reduced “given her age, her health and her ministry.”

Now 84, Rice joined the order when she was a teenager and has been an incendiary member of the social justice movement ever since. Indeed, Rice’s criminal record, accrued during a life of protest, is substantial: she’s been arrested more than 40 times on charges of civil disobedience and has served two separate six-month prison sentences. Rice isn’t concerned about spending the rest of her life behind bars for a cause she’s been fighting her entire life (“One knows one can do it if one has the health to do it, and the community spirit behind you,” she told The London Times). But she argues that the sabotage charge is unwarranted—a gratuitous retaliation for making the Obama administration look bad. “We damaged the credibility of the Department of Defense,” she told the Times. “It’s just outrageous, really, what they are descending to in their arguments.”

Rice says she and her accomplices had every right to pull back the curtain on what she claims is the U.S.’s violation of the 1968 nuclear non-proliferation treaty, which was signed by controversial former attorney general-turned-radical activist Ramsey Clark, whom she cites as an inspiration. She has also cited her duty under the Nuremberg principles (established for post-war trials of Nazis, incidentally), arguing that she was “committing only that which is the responsibility superseding all domestic and international laws; opposing and exposing the government and contracting agents.”

In the United States, we typically associate religious activism with social conservatism—anti-abortion crusaders, defenders of “traditional marriage”—so it’s surprising when an 84-year-old Catholic nun turns out to be a leftist rabble rouser. But there is a long and storied tradition of religiously-motivated “social justice” activism—and it’s one that invariably attracts significant media attention. Because after all, everyone loves an “old lady as revolutionary” story (it’s no coincidence that media coverage has focused almost solely on the octogenarian nun, short-changing her co-conspirators). Remember the much-publicized protests of the Granny Peace Brigade, a group of senior citizens arrested and charged with disorderly conduct for blocking the entrance to an army recruitment center in New York City. The New York Times began its dispatch on the Granny Peace Brigade trial with some sympathy for the sitting judge: “Imagine having grandmotherhood on trial in your courtroom. This is the awkward situation in which Judge Neil Ross finds himself in Manhattan Criminal Court.” Or Sister Helen Perean’s account of being spiritual adviser to a convicted murderer sentenced to death by electric chair, which inspired the Academy Award-nominated film Dead Man Walking.

The fact that Rice is a dowdy, silver-haired nun plays well in the Court of Public Opinion. And while it remains to be seen whether a federal judge will be swayed by these factors—perhaps also finding himself in an “awkward situation”—we can say with conviction that the world would not be watching her case were she just another twenty-something anti-nuke crusader. Tip for other activists: draw attention to your cause by filling your ranks with nuns and grannies. Preferably grannies who are nuns.