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Citizens protest against Maine Yankee Nuclear Power Plant, Wiscasset, Maine, 1979-87
Maine Yankee Nuclear Power Plant was Maine’s only nuclear plant, located in Wiscasset. The plant began running in late 1972 and throughout its operation accounted for one-third of the state’s electric power.
There had been a few initial public voices of concern to the plant’s operation in Wiscasset. In 1971, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) was considering approval of an operating license for the Maine Yankee plant. On July 4, 1971, Citizens for Safe Power, the Audubon Naturalist Council, the Natural Resources Council of Maine, and Maine’s Governor Kenneth M. Curtis petitioned the AEC asking for the suspension of the plant’s operating license until environmental and safety assurances were made.
On November 14, 1971, the AEC held public hearings regarding the approval of the plant’s operating license, giving the groups opposed to the license a forum to present their environmental and safety concerns.
While the AEC was in the process of approving Maine Yankee’s license, another governmental entity was listening to the demands made by the anti-Maine Yankee groups: the Nuclear Regulatory Committee (NRC). The NRC held additional hearings during September of 1972 under the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board, at which the interveners were the state of Maine and the citizens’ group Safe Power for Maine. From these hearings, the two groups compromised in determining that Maine Yankee would operate at 75-80% capacity for 18 months. The NRC also implemented harsher safety and environmental standards for the plant.
On June 20, 1973, the AEC approved a permanent operating license to Maine Yankee Atomic Power for the Wiscasset plant.
In March of 1979, five nuclear plants across the United States, including Maine Yankee, were temporarily shut down due to insufficient earthquake-proofing. This, and then the Three Mile Island incident – in which a valve malfunctioning at the Three Mile Island power plant in Pennsylvania caused significant radioactive leakage in the surrounding area – spurred newfound national concern about the safety of nuclear power plants.
Two such increasingly concerned citizens were Raymond and Patricia Shadis, Wiscasset inhabitants who started new leadership in the anti-Maine Yankee fight. In April 1979, Raymond Shadis began anti-nuclear efforts by visiting the Maine Democratic Convention to try to gain political interest in the possible environmental and safety effects of the Maine Yankee plant. He and his wife also wrote letters to the editor on the potential health effects of the facility. On April 27, 1979, he organized a panel discussion of nuclear power in Edgecomb’s town hall, located 2 miles outside of the plant. One thousand people attended the meeting. Three months later in July, Shadis led a march of 1,000 concerned citizens to the state capital of Augustana, which jumpstarted a statewide anti-nuclear petition.
In the next eight months, Shadis and the Maine Nuclear Referendum Committee (MNRC), which he headed, collected thousands of signatures. The petition demanded a referendum on the question of prohibiting nuclear power in the state. In effect, the referendum, called the Nuclear Fission Control Act, would shut down Maine’s only nuclear power plant, Maine Yankee. The MNRC collected a total of 55,000 signatures, far over the 37,026 needed to force a referendum. The MNRC presented the petition to the state legislature on February 13, 1980.
As the MNRC began an anti-nuclear campaign, pro-Maine Yankee citizens created the Save Maine Yankee Committee (SMYC). Together with SMYC, which increased to 30,000 members, the Maine Yankee Atomic Company started a pro-nuclear campaign of radio and television advertisements, newspaper and column coverage, and speeches at local Chambers of Commerce and fraternal organizations. The Save Maine Yankee Committee received $500,000 from the nuclear industry for the campaign; $325,000 of the sum came from state utilities like Pacific Gas and Electric which wanted to preserve a good image of nuclear power across the nation. Much of the pro-Maine Yankee campaign emphasized the economic costs of shutting down one of the state’s largest energy providers.
Meanwhile, the pro-referendum group reported using $72,000 for their campaign gained from local groups and unions, benefit concerts (including performances by Peter, Paul and Mary and Dan Fogelberg), and anti-nuclear art exhibitions. Maine’s democratic convention (except for Governor Joseph E. Brennan) led by anti-nuclear California Governor Edmund G. Jerry Brown Jr. endorsed the referendum after the April 1979 meeting with Shadis. Other external allies supportive of shutting down Maine Yankee included Amory Lovins, a well-known energy theorist, and People’s Party presidential candidate Barry Commoner.
Maine voted on the Nuclear Fission Control Act on September 23, 1980. It was defeated by a margin of 60 to 40 and Maine Yankee continued operations. One day later, Shadis asked the secretary of state for permission for another petition drive.
In September 1982, anti-nuclear groups succeeded in getting an initiative to eliminate all nuclear power in Maine by 1987 on the state’s November ballot. Jo-An Mooney, of the MNRC, led the referendum campaign, which was approved for the November ballot by the state in February 1982. The Save Maine Yankee Committee, now comprised of 40,000 citizens, began a new pro-nuclear campaign.
With the upcoming vote, the MNRC increased its anti-nuclear publicity. With the support of Dr. Irwin Bross, director of biostatistics at Roswell Park Memorial Institute, the committee employed advertiser Tony Schwartz for its publicity campaign. He created television commercials citing the National Center for Disease Control, which had reported 53% higher rates of cancer in the counties closest to the Maine Yankee plant. Central Maine Power sued the committee for $4.5 million arguing the advertisement significantly hurt its reputation. Meanwhile, the SMYC continued its pro-nuclear publicity campaign arguing for the high economic costs of closing Maine Yankee.
In the November 1982 vote, the initiative to shutdown the Maine Yankee nuclear power plant for five years was defeated again, this time by a smaller margin of 56 to 44.
The anti-Maine Yankee citizens did not end their struggle here, however. The MNRC proposed a law in 1985 that stated any low-level radioactive dumping in Maine required approval of a statewide vote. The referendum passed and in 1987 the group began a new wave of anti-nuclear efforts.
The MNRC created advertisements stating the need for another referendum. This time, the MNRC focused its campaign on the issue of nuclear waste (the precedent for this concern being set with the 1985 referendum). The publicity campaign came as the Federal Department of Energy was deciding on a location for a national nuclear waste dumpsite, and Maine was one of the options. The MNRC understood emphasizing the chance that Maine might be chosen to house not only Maine Yankee’s waste but also waste from across the country would be a compelling campaign. In addition, Cali Hollander, president of Safe Power for Maine, led a petition drive in January of 1987 for another referendum.
A new pro-Maine Yankee group, People for Maine Yankee’s Electricity, fought against the MNRC, spending about $4.7 million (90% of which was donated by national utilities) on an opposing publicity campaign. People for Maine Yankee’s Electricity argued that 3,500 people would lose their jobs if the plant was shut down, and that average rates for electricity would skyrocket. The MNRC contended that the costs of nuclear waste disposal would be far higher than any costs incurred by closing the plant.
On November 3, 1987 Maine voters were once again faced with deciding whether to close Maine Yankee Nuclear Power Plant. The shutdown was rejected by a margin of 59 to 41, narrowly missing what could have been the United State’s first cancellation of an operating nuclear power plant. Though the referendum did not pass, the Nuclear Regulatory Committee (NRC) had heard enough from the anti-nuclear groups to begin an investigation of the plant for safety hazards. On December 18, 1996, Maine Yankee stopped operating commercially due to evidence of environmental and safety issues found by the NRC. From then until 2005, the plant underwent decommissioning and now is completely shutdown.