By Donella Meadows
–August 7, 1986–
Have you ever wondered what drives the people who are activists, who speak up and get involved? For instance, the folks who demonstrate against the Seabrook nuclear power plant — why do they do it?
On July 19 ten members of New Hampshire’s McLane family stood at the Seabrook gate. They carried signs saying “3 GENERATIONS OF OUR FAMILY FOR SAFE ENERGY” and “HONK FOR NO NUKES”. Other signs listed 20 family members who supported the demonstration but couldn’t be there. The youngest demonstrator, age 3, was Marion McLane Read. The oldest, age 65, was Lilla McLane-Bradley.
Lilla, her son Ben, and his wife Nicky Corrao have all been arrested before in nuclear power protests. But this is not a far-out, rabble-rousing family. Lilla and her husband David Bradley live in a gracious house on Occom Ridge in Hanover, New Hampshire. David has been a champion ski-jumper, a professor at Dartmouth’s business school, and a state legislator.
“Why do you demonstrate?” I ask them.
“Because there’s a real chance of stopping the plant,” says Lilla. “After Chernobyl, a lot of people in Massachusetts realize they live in Seabrook’s evacuation zone. Seabrook is closer to Boston than Chernobyl is to Kiev — 250,000 children were sent away from Kiev. Can you imagine a city without children?”
“Now we know we’re all downwind from Seabrook, and from every other nuclear plant. With people in Massachusetts and New Hampshire working together, we can win this fight!”
“No such hope,” says David. “We’re up against the biggest, most brutal machine in the nation — industry, the government, the military, all pushing nuclear power. But we protest anyway. We’re going to be dead a long time, we might as well speak out while we can.”
David missed the family demonstration because he was on Bikini Atoll in the Pacific. He was revisiting the place where, 40 years ago, he was an army medical officer monitoring radiation for atomic bomb tests. The experience moved him to write the book No Place to Hide. Radioactive contamination is not a theoretical concept to David. He has measured it and seen its effects on living things.
People are still only allowed on Bikini for a few hours at a time, he tells me. The vegetation has returned, but the soils are so contaminated with cesium-137 and strontium-90 that the fruit and crabs and coconuts are dangerous to eat. The government now plans to drill holes all over the island and flush them with sea water, in hopes of washing the radiation out. Then, maybe, the island will be habitable again.
“It will be like that around Chernobyl 40 years from now,” says son Ben. “We are only beginning to realize the full disaster there. That accident will go on getting bigger.”
Ben isn’t sure Seabrook can be stopped, but he also can’t sit back and let it happen. He talks about the whole massive system of nuclear power — uranium miners in South Africa; enrichment plants making materials for fuel rods or bombs; people being told a nuclear waste dump is coming to their state; the steamrollering of the town of Seabrook, which voted three times against the plant; the huge cost; the unapproachable, radioactive, decommissioned hulk on the seacoast 50 years from now.
“We are already paying for this, and we will go on paying for it. All for a 40-year burst of electricity. Anyone who looks at the whole picture sees that it’s crazy. And when you see that, you have to do something.”
“WHY do you have to do something?” I ask. “Most people don’t.”
Maybe it’s because the McLane family has been involved in politics for generations. Lilla’s grandfather John McLane was New Hampshire’s governor from 1905 to 1907. McLanes have been political activists ever since. The table in Lilla’s dining room is often surrounded with people getting out mailings or writing their representatives or planning posters. In that family conviction translates quickly into action.
“But I wasn’t raised that way, and I’m out there too,” says Nicky. She is sure that Seabrook will never start up. “Every little thing that every person does in protest is going to add up to cancel that plant.”
Ben says, “The real question is not why we’re activists, but why so many others aren’t. I know people who hate this plant, who complain a lot to themselves, but never once say anything in public.”
They agree that it isn’t easy to do that; the people’s opinion is not really sought on matters of nuclear power. I tell them the story of the Zwentendorf nuclear plant in Austria. As it was about to go on line, there was a public referendum to approve the plant. It was voted down. It has stood there for six years, fully fueled, ready to go, stopped, silent.
“There, you see?” says Nicky. “It can happen.”
Lilla says, “We have a fighting chance of stopping Seabrook, and then we’ll go right on and stop Vermont Yankee.”
David sighs, “Could we hold up on Vermont for a couple of weeks? I’m going climbing in the mountains first. I need to touch something permanent. And beautiful. And uncorrupted.”
Copyright Donella Meadows Institute 2011