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Duluth man: Nuclear security breach 'miraculous'

DULUTH, Minn. - The U.S. District Court in Knoxville, Tenn., calls it trespassing and felony malicious destruction of property and depredation.

Members of the U.S. Congress are calling it "unprecedented," "unacceptable" and "historic."

Greg Boertje-Obed of Duluth calls it "miraculous."

He and two other anti-nuclear protesters have left the nuclear weapons industry reeling by breaking through four fences and reaching a huge uranium storage facility at the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tenn., in the early morning hours of July 28.

Joining Boertje-Obed, 57, were one-time Duluth resident Michael Walli, 63, and 82-year-old nun Megan Gillespie Rice of Nevada. All are members of the Catholic Worker community and protest nuclear weapons under the Plowshares banner.

"We didn't know where we were going," Boertje-Obed said earlier this month in Duluth after serving 45 days in jail in Tennessee.

They simply kept trudging up a hillside into the complex, exposing a derelict security system with bolt cutters and carrying items for a ceremonial vigil before they were sure they would be caught.

They made it through the fences and past security cameras and guard towers.

"It was a struggle," Boertje-Obed said. Rice was getting tired during the half-mile excursion. Once near what they would soon learn is the Highly Enriched Uranium Materials Facility with guard towers at its corners, they thought about giving themselves up.

They instead kept going, eventually coming up next to the building after crossing the most intimidating part of the hike, Boertje-Obed said, the "kill zone" where security is authorized to use deadly force.

"I still don't understand how they didn't respond," Boertje-Obed said.

To their surprise, they ended up where they had hoped to be, next to the world's largest store of enriched uranium.

The trio had only a vague notion of the layout of the facility through Internet searches.

"We chose the nearest spot," Boertje-Obed said of the path they blazed that Saturday morning. "It turned out to be the right building."

It was about 3 a.m. as they unfurled banners, poured blood, lit candles, placed flowers, broke bread, wrote messages on the exterior wall and ceremonially chipped away with hammers at the foundation of a building that holds 100 tons of uranium.

They also strung "crime scene" tape around the area, highlighting the basic tenet of Plowshares, one Boertje-Obed urged a judge to acknowledge at his first appearance in court after the protest.

"I was justified," he said. "Making nuclear weapons is a crime."


That an 82-year-old nun was able to enter a facility touted as the most secure of its kind in the world has caused the expected embarrassment and backlash.

The facility was immediately put on "stand down" for two weeks while assessments were made.

Twelve days after the breach, the National Nuclear Security Administration issued its report on how the security systems failed at Oak Ridge. The division of the Department of Energy was created 12 years ago to deal with growing security problems at facilities across the U.S.

NNSA officer Jill Albaugh signed a scathing letter to the company in charge of security, saying the action of the Plowshares group revealed an "inappropriate Y-12 cultural mindset, as well as a severe lapse of discipline and performance."

The letter outlined what went wrong as the trio climbed up the hill:

• One camera trained on a fence did not work, something the contractor in charge of security had known about for weeks.

• Motion alarms went ignored because animals near the facility constantly trip them, creating lax review by guards.

• The trio was captured on one security camera but guards were not watching the monitor.

• Guards who did respond were berated for a slow reaction and for not confronting the trio with signs of deadly force. Boertje-Obed said the first guard to approach them was friendly and said he knew the protestors were not a threat. That guard was fired for not drawing his weapon and his union is appealing the dismissal.

• Protocols for alarm response and detainment were not followed.

One of the two contracted companies for security was told it would be dropped for breach of contract unless it showed good cause for the security lapse. On Friday, the NNSA recommended that the security firm WSI Oak Ridge be fired.

In Washington, members of Congress excoriated the NNSA, saying it has been warned repeatedly in the past decade about security. Some compared the Plowshares action to the incident at Minot (N.D.) Air Force base in 2007 when a B-52 bomber was mistakenly loaded with nuclear warheads and flown across the country.

Longtime Y-12 protester Ralph Hutchison from the group Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance said the July 28 action was the boldest ever done at the facility. His group usually has peaceful vigils at the gate and a few times people have cut through the perimeter fence or forced themselves through the gate.

"They penetrated far deeper than any other," Hutchison said of the Plowshares trio.


Boertje-Obed sat down in a Duluth coffee shop a week after being released from a Knoxville jail Sept. 11. He wore a T-shirt showing the nuclear facilities scattered across the country. With him were his wife, Michelle Naar-Obed, and longtime anti-nuclear protester and member of the Wisconsin-based Nukewatch, John LaForge.

Naar-Obed said it's "cognitive dissonance" that so many would worry about the security at places like Oak Ridge without thinking about why that security is needed - the danger of nuclear materials.

"It shows we're schizophrenic," she said, that while people blanch at security problems, the root of the problem is ignored.

Plowshares targeted Oak Ridge because it is one of five nuclear facilities set for expansion in the making of uranium.

Boertje-Obed said he talked about the plans for expansion at Oak Ridge with the 47 other people at the jail.

"They didn't know this new plant was being proposed," he said, convincing him even more that actions like his are needed to create awareness.

According to the Associated Press, the Y-12 plant makes uranium parts for every warhead in the U.S. nuclear arsenal, dismantles old weapons and is the nation's primary storehouse for bomb-grade uranium.

Groups like Plowshares are wary of government talk about the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons only to see the U.S. continually add to the problem, Boertje-Obed said.

"Other countries are watching us," he said. "We believe it's a war crime."

Hutchison said that while the Plowshares message may be lost in the hue and cry over security, the public's overall feeling about nuclear facilities may change.

"Their competence is being called into question," he said. "It shows they can't manage complex things."

In Washington, infighting among parties continues over funding for new facilities and the continuing problem with security. One lawmaker went as far as introducing a bill that would put military personnel in charge of security.

It's estimated the government spends $1 billion a year on security at nuclear complexes around the country.

"There isn't any way to make this place secure," Hutchison said of Oak Ridge. "You could fly over and drop something. You could go up on a ridge and launch a rocket."

"We have to think about security in another way," he said. "People in this country don't feel threatened by our weapons."


Since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, court punishments for protests at nuclear facilities have become more severe.

Charges have been ramped up to felonies from mere misdemeanor trespassing, LaForge said, sending cases to federal courts. Any case law made in lower state courts is ignored, LaForge said.

In Knoxville, the three protestors were originally charged with trespassing and one felony.

Walli and Rice pleaded not guilty at a subsequent court appearance and were allowed to leave the area on the condition that they wouldn't perform any more protests. Rice had been suffering from some chronic ailments while in jail without her regular medicine.

Boertje-Obed said he couldn't abide by the conditions of release and made his plea that nuclear weapon making is a crime and he was merely acting to stop it.

"It's always deepening," Boertje-Obed said of his six weeks in jail. "It's a growing experience."

He spent the time reading books by other activists about their prison time, like South Africa's Nelson Mandela.

After another felony count was added, Boertje-Obed appeared again in court and asked to be released. Because of the growing complications in the case, a request to move the October trial date was granted. It will now be on Feb. 26.

The judge said Boertje-Obed could be trusted to return, since the spectacle of the trial fits into his plans, and could probably serve the community if returned to his activist community in Duluth.

Boertje-Obed said it was important to return to his wife and 17-year-old daughter to explain the seriousness of the case and pass along life lessons.

To avoid charges of conspiracy, he tells his family little about actions that might land him in jail.

Naar-Obed said she accepts her activist husband's life.

"We support each other, and that sometimes means we can't be together," she said in an interview while her husband was in jail. They wrote letters to each other.

"There's a responsibility to chip away at the powers that crush us," she said, sitting next to him at the coffee shop. "There's a responsibility to help create a community that will replace that empire."

That chipping away will eventually require something to replace the oppression of nuclear weapons, she said.

"It's a whole new set of ethics," Naar-Obed said, "for the next generation, based on justice, compassion and humanity."

The couple said they talk to their daughter frequently about her responsibility as part of another generation growing up with nuclear weapons.

"It's hard to do that from jail," she said.


Boertje-Obed is a military veteran, and nothing pleased him more than to hear after his release that the Duluth chapter of Veterans For Peace created a petition in support of his actions in Oak Ridge.

"I was trained to fight and win a nuclear war," he said of his time in South America as a medical service officer.

It was his job to train for treating injuries from a possible nuclear attack and to make sure troops knew how to don protective suits and gas masks.

The absurdity of trying to protect oneself from nuclear annihilation turned something in him, he said.

"I realized I was going to die," he said

"Instead of continuing with the sham, I needed to turn to prevent a nuclear war."

Mike Creger writes for The Duluth New Tribune