A U.S. magistrate judge on Friday ordered the release pending trial of an 82-year-old nun and another anti-nuclear activist charged with breaching security fences at one of the most sensitive U.S. nuclear facilities, in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where weapons-grade uranium is kept.
The security failure was an embarrassment for the National Nuclear Security Administration, or NNSA, the Energy Department branch that operates U.S. nuclear weapons plants, and for the international security firm G4S, which owns WSI Oak Ridge, the contractor responsible for protecting the facility.
G4S was also at the center of a dispute over security at the London Olympic Games.
Officials said the facility was shut down on Wednesday at least until next week after peace activists Megan Rice, 82, Michael Walli, 63, and Greg Boertje-Obed, 57, cut through perimeter fences to reach the outer wall of a building where highly enriched uranium, a key nuclear bomb component, is stored.
The activists painted slogans and threw what they said was human blood on the wall of the facility, one of numerous buildings in the facility known by the code name Y-12 that it was given during World War Two, officials said.
At a hearing in Knoxville, Tennessee on Friday, assistant U.S. Attorney Melissa Kirby argued that all three should remain in custody. "This is a crime of violence," Kirby said.
But U.S. Magistrate Judge C. Clifford Shirley ruled the threat of violence was low and decided to release Rice, who according to her attorney has a thyroid and heart condition and has not been receiving her medication. The judge also released Walli. Both were given travel and other restrictions, and will stay at a private residence in Knoxville while court proceedings continue, according to defense attorneys.
Boertje-Obed waived his right to a defense attorney and will remain in detention.
All three defendants appeared in grey, striped prison clothes with orange plastic shoes, handcuffs, and leg manacles. Rice appeared frail and was suffering from hypothermia, according to her attorney, Francis Lloyd, Jr., who draped his coat over her. Court was recessed to allow time to find a space heater and a blanket for Rice.
While moving between the perimeter fences, the activists triggered sensors that alerted security personnel. But officials conceded the intruders were still able to reach the building's walls before security personnel got to them.
Officials said that the storage building itself, which was built after the September 11, 2001, al Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington, was designed with modern security features and that its contents were not compromised.
(Writing by Mary Wisniewski; Editing by Greg McCune and Eric Walsh)