KNOXVILLE, Tennessee (Reuters) - Three peace activists endangered U.S. national security last year when they breached a secure facility where enriched uranium for nuclear bombs is stored, a federal official testified on Tuesday at their trial on charges of sabotage and destruction of federal property.
Steven Erhart, site manager for the heavily guarded Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, said the break-in by an 83-year-old nun and two others resulted in a 15-day shutdown that disrupted operations at one of the primary manufacturing facilities for the U.S. nuclear weapons program.
“The 15-day shutdown put everything behind in terms of nuclear operations,” Erhart said as the first witness for prosecutors in the federal trial. “It hurt our credibility and that credibility is tied to nuclear deterrence.”
The activists have admitted they cut perimeter fences in July 2012, walked through the complex for hours and spray-painted slogans and hammered on the walls of an enriched uranium facility. Defense attorneys said the symbolic break-in did not harm the facility.
When a guard finally confronted Michael Walli, 64; Greg Boertje-Obed, 57, and nun Megan Rice, 83, the trio offered him food and began singing.
The breach sparked investigations by the U.S. Congress and the Energy Department, which oversees nuclear facilities. An Energy Department inspector general report in August found “troubling displays of ineptitude” at the complex.
Shortly after the incident, the top security official at the National Nuclear Security Agency and two other federal officials were reassigned. Also, top officials at WSI, the international security company that provided security at Oak Ridge, were removed and officers were fired, demoted or suspended.
Under cross-examination by defense attorneys on Tuesday, Erhart said he had been very surprised by the reports of the security breach, which pointed to “systemic issues and problems with security that should have been detected.”
Asked if that night’s events were embarrassing, Erhart said, “It was an embarrassment for the Y-12 plant and the people who work there. It was an embarrassment for the NNSA and the DoE.”
The first officer who responded, Kirk Garland, testified on Tuesday he had worked nearly 30 years for the Energy Department and described the defendants as “passive” demonstrators. He did not immediately restrain them and was later terminated.
“Given my experience, I knew at that point what I had,” Garland said. “They told me they were sent from God and they wanted to read a statement to me. They also read to me from the Bible, Isaiah if I recall correctly.”
Sergeant Chad Riggs testified that when he approached the scene he ordered the three defendants to lie down to protect himself and Garland, who he said he thought “was more lax than he should be with an unknown threat.”
Defense attorneys said in opening statements the defendants had not tried to tamper with the manufacturing facility and did not threaten national security.
“They had white roses and Bibles, they didn’t have grenades, guns, dynamite or camouflage,” said Christopher Irwin, who represents Walli. “They had none of the tools needed to obstruct national security.”
“You will hear no evidence that they tried to blow a hole in the wall or break in,” Irwin said. “They took household hammers and tapped the corner of a building.”
In January, the security agency named a new group to manage security at the site, Consolidated Nuclear Security LLC. The group replaced Babcock & Wilcox Co, which had contracted some of security work to WSI, a unit of G4S.
The Oak Ridge facility is the primary U.S. site for processing and storage of enriched uranium.
Writing by David Bailey; Editing by Scott Malone and David Gregorio