On April 24, 2011, I participated in the Peace Pilgrimage for a Nuclear Free World. The Peace Pilgrimage, organized by Jun-s
an Yasudafrom the Grafton, NY Peace Pagoda, began April 10, 2011 with a vigil at the Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant, with walkers making a 206 mile trek to Vermont Yankee, where they held another vigil.
Although about 75 people participated in the last leg of the 206-mile trek from Marlboro and Brattleboro to the northwest, the march I participated in came from the southeast, in my home state of Massachusetts. Organized by Jonathan Stevens, this “downwinder’s march” began at 7AM on Montague Farm, 24 miles from Vermont Yankee. The farm was a birthplace of the US anti-nuclear movement in the early 1970s. We journeyed through beautiful woods on backroads and trails to meet the other marchers.
We gathered around a sign at the farm that reads “better active today than radioactive tomorrow” and took a moment to remember those of us who have gone before. Jonathan Stevens talked about his approach to the march as being about reinvigorating the movement, about bringing a message of “wake up” to our communities – an appropriate metaphor on any early spring morning, but also a message that would resonate with Christians observing Easter that day. A few of the monks from the Leverett Peace Pagoda led us in a chant, and we were off into the misty morning.
We stopped in Montague Center at the home of Sam Lovejoy. He and his partner greeted us – and she joined the march for a while. In 1974, when Northeast Utilities was seeking a permit for a nuclear power plant in Montague, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission required the utility to take one continuous year of weather data to characterize prevailing winds near the site. Sam toppled the radio tower that held the weather equipment, forcing the utility to restart its data-taking. Sam turned himself in, was charged, tried, and acquitted (follow the link above for the full story). In the end, Northeast Utilities abandoned the project. We visited the site of the former radio tower along our route, pictured here.
Four of us walked the entire 24 miles, but we were joined by several others who walked part of the way with us, including some of the residents from Montague Farm in the 1970s, a dog, and an alpaca.
Due to a coordination SNAFU among the organizers, the 75 marchers that were part of the end of the 206-mile march reached Vermont Yankee early, but did not wait for our group to arrive, proceeding with their vigil in our absence. When we arrived, we offered our drums, chants, and prayers for a nuclear free world and joined the others for a potluck supper at the Friends Meeting House in West Brattleboro.
The greatest disappointment for me is that another engineering faculty member from a university in New England had joined the larger group of marchers, and we were not able to meet up and collectively represent ESJP. So close!
My reasons for marching were made clear on my signage. The first principle in safety engineering is to ask yourself “Can you design out the risk?” And if the answer is yes, then you do so. What Fukushima and the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster have brought into stark relief is the fact that engineers cannot anticipate everything that can happen, and risks we had quantitatively estimated as incredibly remote are happening with higher frequency than predicted. To design for the unanticipatable, we must think holistically about the scope and scale of our activities and their risks – and design out the environmental and human disasters that have become business as usual.
As folks in the US have revisited our own history of nuclear accidents , I am reminded that the largest release of radioactivity was not at Three Mile Island as is popularly assumed, but on Navajo lands at Church Rock, New Mexico. A dam failed at the site of a uranium mill there in 1979, resulting in a release of radioactive waste and heavy metals into the Puerco River, where contamination continues. While these long-lasting environmental and human costs of nuclear power are not widely known, they ought to have central consideration for those of us working at the intersection of engineering, social justice, and peace.
Additionally, I have been spurred to action against this particular nuclear plant because as the Fukushima catastrophe was unfolding, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission was relicensing the 40-year-old Vermont Yankee to operate for another 20 years past its scheduled end date in March 2012. The plant was given this seal of approval despite numerous incidents in recent years including tritium leaks, fires, worker exposures, and a cooling tower collapse. Despite poor management and a distinct lack of transparency on the part of the plant owner Entergy, the NRC gave up its best chance to strengthen safety and maintenance practices at the plant. With its federal relicensing, Entergy has now sued the state of Vermont because their state senate voted last year to prohibit the plant from operating past its original closing date in March 2012. It is not clear how the courts will resolve this conflict between a state’s right to shut down the plant vs. the NRCs right to relicense its operation. I am confident, however, that the people of Vermont and others of us in the 50-mile evacuation zone will continue working for a nuclear-free world.