In an era when Occupy Wall Street protestors are beaten and arrested like hardened criminals, more than 40 years ago in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, there was another organized protest movement that captured the nation's attention as it spread from New Hampshire's Clamshell Alliance to the Abalone Alliance in southern California. In the mid-to-late 1970s, massive civil disobedience and notably peaceful arrest of protestors were taking place from the tidewater of Virginia to the farmlands of Oklahoma against the construction and operation of commercial nuclear power reactors.
What is less well-known is that at the root of the controversy, prior to public demonstrations of opposition, were a handful of exceptional women, mostly "housewives" whose thankless work done at their dining room tables provided those demonstrators and an uninformed country with the true realities of the "peaceful" atom.
As each became a legal "intervener" against utility applications during the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's unwieldy licensing process, NRC bureaucrats quickly discovered, each was a feisty woman with a built-in B.S. detector and an ability to recognize a dog-and-pony show when they saw one. With not a shrinking violet among them, none were intimidated by a deliberately complicated NRC process meant to deter public access nor did they succumb to coercion by high-paid snooty corporate lawyers.
All educated, the intervening women interpreted lengthy, complex interrogatories from utility attorneys as they discovered an ingrained NRC resistance and a special vernacular that hid the reality of "abnormal events" that translated into recurring safety problems as "isolated incidents," "generic safety issues" and "lacking specificity" became common denominators for bureaucratic camouflage. Exhibiting innate leadership qualities, each funded their own interventions at great personal expense -- both monetarily and emotionally, each understood their role to educate the public and media to the immediate and long-term health and safety hazards of nuclear reactor operations.
After the first nuclear chain reactor split the atom in 1942, it was only a matter of time before a profit-motivated industry would be created around an extremely complex, dangerous and expensive way to boil water with the added benefit of U.S. taxpayer subsidies. Established by Congress in 1974, the NRC's licensing process required a legal petition to intervene identifying an "interest" that may be affected and at least one "admissible" contention which the individual seeks to litigate. Once granted "standing," the petitioner becomes an "intervener" as a legal party to the proceedings.
* Irene Dickinson, who was in her 70s when she organized the Citizens Committee for Protection of the Environment in 1966, quickly became the heart-center of the intervening women's network with a reputation for an expertise in all aspects of an intervention including anticipation of NRC and nuclear industry tactics. With the energy of a teenager, Irene opposed Consolidated Edison's plans at Indian Point, 34 miles north of New York City.
Under the pressure of reams of NRC inspection reports and depositions to be answered, Irene became a savvy, proficient intervener and persistent questioner as she introduced a multitude of public officials to the hazards of nuclear pollution, radioactive spent fuel, seismic faults, inadequate evacuation plans and "abnormal occurrences." By 1979, her voluminous files containing more than 6,000 pieces, all alphabetized and catalogued into 22 boxes, were turned over to Columbia University.
Thanks to her efforts so many years ago, former Governor Mario Cuomo, then-Senator Hillary Clinton and current Governor Andrew Cuomo have all called for shutdown of the Indian Point plant.
* In 1973, Carrie Barefoot Dickerson was a grandmother of five when she became aware of plans to build two GE nuclear reactors near her farm in northeast Oklahoma, setting for the musical Oklahoma and near Will Rogers' childhood home. In response, a former school teacher and author of "Aunt Carrie's War Against Black Fox," Dickerson formed the Citizen's Action for Safe Energy. As a registered nurse, Dickerson questioned the health effects of cumulative nuclear exposure from the daily release of radioactive emissions during routine operations.
In 1982, after an arduous nine-year battle, her retirement savings depleted and her farm mortgaged, Black Fox became the first nuclear reactor to be canceled due to combined legal and citizen action. Until her death in 2006 at 89 years old, Carrie Barefoot Dickerson continued to actively promote safe, renewable energy sources.
* In 1967, when Midland, Michigan resident Mary Sinclair's letter to the editor questioning the safety of a proposed nuclear reactor along Lake Michigan stirred considerable heat, she knew she had a tiger by the tail. A former technical writer for the Atomic Energy Commission, Sinclair intervened and when the sinking and cracking of buildings designed to contain the plant's twin reactors was discovered, Dow Chemical pulled out of the project. By 1984, Consumers Power backed out of its contract after spending $4 billion with construction 85 percent complete and by 1987, the Midland nuclear project was converted into a natural-gas fueled power plant.
During her years as an intervener, Sinclair endured community ire when the family car's brake lines were cut, their mail box bombed, her husband's business boycotted, life-threatening letters received, and being spat upon while grocery shopping. In commenting on Sinclair's role in cancellation of the Midland reactor, a spokesman for Consumers Power said, "I want to blame her but I don't want to give her any credit."
In 1994, Mary Sinclair earned a Ph.D. in Environmental Communications at 75 years of age and continued to question the storage of spent fuel at reactor sites 300 yards from the shore of Lake Michigan until her death in early 2011.
* As the Atomic Energy Commission's (forerunner of the NRC) began public hearings on Vermont Yankee Power Company application to construct a nuclear reactor along the Connecticut River, Esther Poneck organized the New England Coalition on Nuclear Pollution to intervene against construction in 1971.
Descendant of a Quaker family that (almost) dates back to the country's founding and owner of a 500-acre farm 20 miles north of the proposed reactor, Poneck, a psychologist and member of the first graduating class of the New Jersey College for Women in 1918, was joined by her equally-formidable daughter Diana Sidbotham, a Vassar College graduate and classical singer. Poneck, known as a Grand New England Lady, continued to oppose nuclear projects throughout New England until her death in 1991 at 91 years of age.
* Dr. Judy Johnsrud established the Environmental Coalition on Nuclear Power in 1970 when she became the original intervener against Three Mile Island construction in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Johnsrud participated in interventions against the Limerick nuclear power plant and the proposed Peach Bottom reactor both in close proximity to high population areas. With a Ph.D. in geography and a brilliant analytical mind, Johnsrud analyzed the features of each site and today, the Limerick plant is considered to be the third highest earthquake risk in the United States.
A longtime citizen activist who criss-crossed the country speaking to safe energy groups and testifying before the NRC and State regulatory commissions, Judy was considered an expert on all aspects of nuclear power and remained active until health considerations forced her recent retirement at 80 years of age.
* With a B.A. in anthropology from the University of Michigan, Kay Drey made her first speech against nuclear power in 1974 before a Missouri State Senate Committee. In 1976, Drey organized the Citizens for Reformed Electric Rates which sponsored a successful ballot initiative against a rate increase to finance construction of the Calloway Nuclear power plant. The initiative passed with 65 percent of the vote.
Drey participated in the intervention against the Calloway reactor, participated in the cancellation of the Marble Hill nuclear plant in Indiana and provided expert testimony against the Dresden reactor in Joliet, Illinois. Kay continues a 25-year effort to clean up nuclear waste from the uranium purification sites located in downtown St. Louis.
* A music and English Literature major at the University of Vermont, June Allen organized the North Anna Environment Coalition in Virginia when she learned from a local geologist that the proposed nuclear reactors at North Anna, 86 miles south of Washington, D.C., sat astride an existing geologic fault.
A soft-spoken classical pianist who wore pearls, Allen developed her investigative talents as she became an eloquent, hard-nosed intervener in 1972 pointing out what she saw as collusion between the NRC and Virginia Electric Power Company. Allen testified before Congress in 1974 identifying the "nuclear-industrial complex" as an inherently unsafe technology and frequently attended VEPCO stockholder meetings. According to Allen's husband, on an occasion when spied in the audience, VEPCO's Chairman stopped the meeting, extended an arm, pointed a finger directly at June and announced with great indignation, "There is Mrs. Allen."
After the reactors at North Anna began operation, June continued to expose the health effects of radiation as she succumbed to breast cancer in 2010 which she believed to be caused by radiation exposure.
* A graduate of the University of North Carolina and on Walter Cronkite's staff at CBS in New York City, Faith Young organized the Concerned Citizens of Dixon Springs when she learned of the Tennessee Valley Authority's plan to build the world's largest nuclear complex one mile from Young's 150 acre beef cattle ranch. Four GE reactors were to be built at Hartsville, 50 miles northeast of Nashville along the Cumberland River amidst a historic rural farming community with antebellum homes that date back to 1787.
One-half of a southern belle duo, Steel Magnolia #1 became an intervener in 1975 and, as a result of President Carter's review of TVA's plans, all reactors at Hartsville were cancelled by 1984 as too expensive and unnecessary with a $2.5 billion "white elephant" cooling tower still visible from Young's farm.
In 1985, Young was arrested while speaking at a TVA meeting on the Watts Bar reactor and held in Knoxville County Jail until the hearing concluded at the end of the day. The next morning's Nashville Tennessean headline read "TVA Arrests Two Grandmothers."
* Steel Magnolia #2, Jeanine Honicker, who was arrested with Young in 1985, filed a 92-page petition with the NRC in 1978 to shut down the entire nuclear industry based on excessive radon emissions from the milling and mining of uranium. The petition was heard by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1982.
A leukemia diagnosis for Honicker's 19-year-old daughter as she read Dr. John Gofman's "Poisoned Power" was enough to motivate the Nashville native to become an anti-nuclear activist. Today, still active with safe energy groups, Honicker recalls that her daughter's illness was "too high a price to pay for electricity."
By 1978, due, in part, to widespread public opposition, no new applications for nukes were forthcoming until 2011. Touted today as a "'clean' non-polluting energy," nuclear reactors are known to release radioactive gases and liquids during routine daily operations. In their determination to publicize its hazards, the intervening women were pioneers alerting the American public to the scientific consensus that all radiation exposure is cumulative and damages cellular DNA.
With five of the intervening women gone, they remain all-American visionaries, every one a heroine almost half a century later. In the aftermath of Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and Fukushima, the result of their persistent efforts, their diligent research and analysis on behalf of a safe energy planet for all the world's children, lives on.