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U.S. citizens campaign to close nuclear power plant in Rowe, Massachusetts, 1991
The Yankee Atomic Electric Company commissioned the Yankee Nuclear Power Plant in 1960 as a prototype in association with President Eisenhower’s ‘Atoms for Peace’ program. It was the first pressurized water reactor built in New England and only the third in the United States. The plant, nicknamed ‘Yankee Rowe’ was commercialized in 1961, but was only scheduled to be in commission for about six years. Among its owners were the New England Power Company, the Connecticut Light and Power Company, and Boston Edison Company, sharing in part the 44 billion kilowatts of power put out by the reactor in its 31-year life.
The 1970’s and ‘80’s were wrought with protests against nuclear power plants all over the country as activists in groups organized large-scale efforts to stop construction on plants from occurring in their communities. In 1974, organic farmers halted the construction of a plant in Montague, Massachusetts with their organized demonstrations (see “Montague, Massachusetts, citizens stop nuclear power plant construction, United States, 1974”). In 1977, the Clamshell Alliance organized enormous demonstrations on a construction site in Seabrook, New Hampshire (see “Clamshell Alliance campaigns against Seabrook Nuclear Power Plant, New Hampshire 1976-1989”). The initial protest yielded arrests of 1414 of 2000 protesters and inspired other organizations to spring up around the country. One such group was the Abalone Alliance in California, which occupied the construction site of Diablo Canyon nuclear reactor in 1977 in protest (see “Abalone Alliance campaigns against Diablo Canyon Nuclear Plant, California, 1976-1984”). Suddenly the very idea of nuclear power was becoming widely contested from all corners of the country. The disaster at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in 1979 marked the worst reactor melt down in US history and added validity to the concerns of the many activists against nuclear power plant construction.
Like many of its sister plants, Yankee Rowe was the subject of protest by local communities and environmentalists from the early 1980’s until its closure in 1991. The reactor sparked concern from locals about how it affected the health and living conditions of the people in the area. However, grand opposition to the plant’s continued operation did not materialize until 1991, when a number of more prominent environmentalist groups called the safety of the plant into question. On June 4, 1991, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) petitioned for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to recommend an immediate shut down of the plant due to safety concerns. According to a study that the NRC had conducted, the state of the plant’s steel reactor, a portion of the machine that housed the potentially harmful radioactive material, was below the safety regulations outlined by the NRC. Although the UCS presented this data in their appeal, the NRC denied their motion on June 25, claiming that the plant was safe to operate. According to the UCS’s attorney, the NRC had been aware of the steel reactor’s uncertain safety since 1990, but ruled to keep the plant active then, too.
The UCS’s appeal echoed the desires of a number of environmentalist groups who showed their support for Yankee Rowe’s immediate closure. Among these was the Citizens Awareness Network (CAN), a local group of environmentalists that had been concerned with the presence of the plant for some time. In order to mobilize their community against Yankee Rowe, they began a ‘country-wide’ program that focused on raising awareness about the implications of living near a nuclear power plant. Yet another group that was instrumental in the campaign was the New England Coalition on Nuclear Pollution (NECNP), which filed the petition in conjunction with the UCS for the immediate shutdown of the plant in the summer of 1991. In addition, when the NECNP and the UCS put forward the petition, about a dozen towns in the area surrounding the plant passed resolutions in support of the motion.
Shortly after the UCS was denied, six Members of Congress from Massachusetts and Vermont urged the NRC to conduct hearings to properly gage the safety of the plant. The NRC complied, and on June 11 representatives from the Union of Concerned Scientists were joined by scientists from the NRC, Yankee Rowe officials, and about 350 local residents, environmentalists, and public officials for a three-week debate that would decide the plant’s fate. On July 23 and 24, the UNRC held public hearings in Rowe Elementary School that drew a crowd of near 1000 people, many of which were in opposition to the plant. Pickers held vigil outside the school holding up signs in protest of the plant’s continued operation.
Despite the impressive turnout, the results of the hearing were not as the activists had hoped. Although the NRC acknowledged that there were ‘unacceptable levels of uncertainty,’ they had no concerns about the actually safety of the plant. Hence, they denied the need for an immediate shutdown, as the original petition had demanded. Instead, the NRC recommended that Yankee Rowe remain in commission until its scheduled inspection on April 15, when it would be closed temporarily until the security concerns were addressed properly. In addition the NRC called upon the Yankee Rowe staff to look into ways for reducing the risk of a ruptured reactor leaking radiation.
On October 1, 1991, the NRC reversed their decision and recommended that Yankee Rowe shut down. A more detailed inspection of the degree of embrittlement of the fuel reactor revealed that the plant might not have been safe to operate at all. They recommended that Yankee Rowe shut down immediately for further inspection. Hours later the Yankee Atomic Board announced that they were closing the plant permanently. The decision was based, they claimed, on economic concerns, as the cost of fixing the plant without the guarantee of it being reopened was too great. Yankee Rowe was shut down on October 1, 1991 after almost 32 years of operation and was permanently decommissioned in February of 1992. The plant was totally dismantled by 2007. The decommissioning of the Yankee Power Plant, for whatever reason the Yankee Atomic Board claimed was necessary, was seen as a victory for activists, environmentalists groups, and locals who had been protesting the plant’s existence for years.