A moral obligation to expose nuclear threats: an interview with Sister Megan Rice

September 25, 2015

Sister Megan Rice is an American nun who has committed decades to anti-nuclear campaigning. In 2012, she, along with two fellow activists, broke into the Y-12 National Security Complex, a key site for the development and manufacture of nuclear weapons. The break-in and demonstration sent a message that nuclear weapons are in violation of international law, and the destructive power of nuclear weapons threatens all of humanity.

Sister Rice, Gregory Boertje-Obed and Michael Walli were convicted and imprisoned for their part in the demonstration and were released earlier this year. Sister Rice is a member of the organization Transform Now Plowshares, which is now part of the ICAN network. We spoke to Sister Rice about the current status of nuclear weapons, her life-long campaign for peace, and the way towards a nuclear-weapon-free world.  


ICAN: What is the main message that you would like to convey through your activism against nuclear weapons? 

Megan Rice (MR): J. Robert Oppenheimer saw prophetically the potential of the unfortunate outcome of that first nuclear test in Alamagordo which still continues today: the appearance of a new “gold rush”. And who can measure, or list, the enormity of the number of victims in the ensuing failure of humankind to recognize and act in consequence of the truth revealed by that Alamagordo test?

Who has the courage to name the industry as it really has become, and to prevent its destructive existence by transforming its violence into something positive. It’s time to face and recognize the facts of history throughout these 70 years of existence of this apparent “gold rush”, hovering under the guise of “security”.

We need to transform, first our own hearts and minds, and, with the assistance of an all-loving and compassionate Creator, put an end to a “gold rush” of a nuclear weapons industrial complex by turning it into industries that promote the preservation of true and lasting peace on earth.

ICAN: In the public consciousness, there has been a degree of apathy, derived perhaps from a sense of helplessness, especially in countries that possess nuclear weapons. Why is it important that we keep our focus on nuclear weapons today?

MR: For the very notion you have expressed. The programmed long silence and delay in coming to terms generate apathy, which feeds those who are so embedded in the profiteering from continuing, often untroubled, unsupervised, unaccountably, perhaps, for years.

Other new weapons, like drones, distract from them out of visibility, too complicated, truly useless, but hugely profitable for the inner circle, cumbersome nuclear warheads. Nobody wants to use them, that’s for sure. So the real true story needs all the more to be told effectively, over and over again, because of the real ignorance about what they are and represent in human decadence.

ICAN: Together with Michael R. Walli and Gregory I. Boertje-Obed you broke into the Y-12 national security complex in Oak Ridge. What was the objective of that action and what was the biggest revelation of your experience inside the base?

MR: I suppose the ease of entry, the absence of working security signals, etc. The ease with which we were able to carry out each of the messages we planned to bring to the workers and DOE [Department of Energy] and real world.

ICAN: Since your action in 2012, the Y-12 complex has made the news again for failing another security test. What doesn’t the public know about the security of the United States’ nuclear arsenal?

MR: For me, a difficult question to address. Did you actually know that the facility never found the first opening we made in the first, outer fence located well back in the wooded area on the down slope of the ridge before reaching the top to descend and enter through the last three of the perimeter fences?

Our friends knew this and in December retraced our route to see if the flap had been repaired or found. To their surprise, it was wide open. We had linked it closed with wire or plastic ties. The animals had probably pushed it open.

So our friends diligently reported to the DOE officials at the base that the outer fence had never been repaired. It was headlined in the Knoxville Sentinel, “Hole in barrier remains”. So the public locally were made aware of the “climate of laxity” which has pervaded the facility security, understandably, after 70 years of useless activity maintaining a dead-end industry kept fairly secret during all these decades.

ICAN: You have been arrested more than three dozen times. Do you feel that civil disobedience is a moral duty when it comes to nuclear weapons?

MR: I feel that certainly we all have a moral obligation and shared responsibility and obligation to expose and oppose known crimes. Intending to create, plan, produce, test or ever using WMD are surely crimes against humanity, war crimes. The Nuremberg trials surely have clearly re-articulated this along with other treaties, charters and understandings as universal principles for our contemporary times.

ICAN: The work to get rid of nuclear weapons sometimes feels lonely and the vision of a world free of nuclear weapons unattainable. Have you ever doubted that humanity will one day reject the notion that nuclear weapons are needed? 

MR: I could never doubt that this will happen and this is already being said by close to 160 nations since the last Non-Proliferation Treaty review in April-May 2015 at the UN failed to make further progress. These delegates left determined to forget about the work on the NPT review, and just get going on the banning of nuclear weapons as weapons of mass destruction.

ICAN: Pope Francis has strongly denounced the catastrophic impact of nuclear weapons and showed concern about the humanitarian consequences. How do you think the moral teachings of Catholicism connect with the activism to rid the world of such an unacceptable weapon?

MR: I have studied these documents so many years ago that it stuns me now to think that there could be anyone who calls him or herself a member of the human family and does not in some way actively oppose the existence of weapons of mass destruction in whatever is their own best and most creative way possible.

ICAN: ICAN works to achieve a treaty banning nuclear weapons as a much needed step towards their elimination. Why did Transform Now Plowshares decide to become a partner?

MR: Simply because we know that there needs to be central, coordinated, full-time people of expertise for global planning and coordination of action to make this happen most effectively and as soon as possible, and also in devising the needed alternatives to the war-making – life-enhancing alternatives to war – building real and effective ways to settle differences between national governments globally and with nonviolent methods.

No war today can be moral or necessary ever again. There are always non-violent means of negotiation among the members of the family of nations.

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