Montague, Massachusetts, citizens stop nuclear power plant construction, United States, 1974

 

In 1973, the Northeast Utilities (NU) company began developing plans to build a nuclear power plant in the small town of Montague, Massachussets. The company’s investment in the plant totaled $1.52 billion, roughly thirty times the assessed value of the whole town. The project’s only vocal adversaries were a group of organic farmers who called themselves the Nuclear Objectors for a Pure Environment (NOPE). One of the group’s most active participants was Samuel Lovejoy, an organic farmer and longtime resident of Montague.

On February 22, 1974, George Washington’s birthday, Sam Lovejoy snuck onto the NU property and sabotaged a 500-foot weather tower, which the plant had built to test wind direction. Using a wrench and a few other farm tools, Lovejoy loosened one of the guide wires that supported the base of the tower, causing the foundation to collapse. Lovejoy then went directly to the police station and turned himself in, along with a four-page statement in which he justified his action. The goal of his action, as he emphasized in his statement, was not to provoke fear, but rather to spark a public debate on the effects of nuclear reactors. He also claimed that it was unfair of the nuclear energy industry to target a rural area and construct a reactor that would ultimately serve the electrical needs of more densely populated cities.

The following morning, the police released him from jail on personal recognizance. His trial was scheduled to take place in six months. Lovejoy, who decided to represent himself rather than use an attorney, faced one count of malicious destruction of personal property. He announced that he would plead “not guilty” to the charge.

Lovejoy’s act focused the local community’s attention on the construction of the power plant and its implications. In the spring of 1974, a few months after Lovejoy felled the tower, town meetings in the neighboring towns of Shutesbury, Leverett, and Wendell passed resolutions in favor of a nuclear moratorium. In Montague, however, the town meeting rejected the call for a moratorium by a vote of 67 to 12. In the town elections that followed, local officials submitted a referendum proposition asking residents whether they supported the construction of two nuclear plants.

As part of their campaign against nuclear power, NOPE formed the NO party and submitted five of their own candidates for positions such as on the board of health, as moderator, and as town meeting representative. The NO party’s campaign received attention from local newspapers, and although none of their candidates won positions, Sam Lovejoy garnered over 100 votes for town representative. The referendum passed, but by a slimmer margin than the pro-nuclear authorities expected- out of 3,000 voters, 770 voted “no” on the nuclear plant proposal.

Besides the NO party, the Alternative Energy Coalition (AEC) emerged as another opposition voice. Founded by Harvey Wasserman, an anti-nuclear activist, the organization threw its support behind the NO party candidates as part of a public awareness campaign. After the local elections, the AEC started a campaign to include a dual referendum on the State Senate district ballot. The first part of the referendum asked the state senator to oppose the Montague nuclear project, and the second asked that the senator "sponsor and support a resolution aimed at closing and dismantling" two active nuclear power plants in Rowe, Massachusetts, and Vernon, Vermont. By the end of summer, 1974, the AEC had collected enough signatures to get the referendum included on the ballot.

In September, 1974, Lovejoy went on trial at the Franklin County Superior Court in Greenfield, Mass. After a lengthy trial (which included Lovejoy’s six-hour uninterrupted testimonial in front of a jury), the case was ultimately dismissed by Judge Kent Smith. Smith justified the acquittal on the basis of a legal technicality: Lovejoy could not be punished for destroying “personal property” because the tower was actually "real property."

One day after the acquittal, NU announced their decision to put off construction of the nuclear plants for another year. The company’s financial problems, combined with high interest rates and material cost increases caused officials to reconsider the $1.5 billion investment. The following month, another referendum against the Montague plant failed by a much smaller margin than the first. In the district-wide referendum, 23,000 voters opposed construction of the plant. The fact that 47.5 percent of the population now stood against the project revealed the success of Lovejoy’s campaign.

On February 22, 1975, NU pushed the construction date back another four years, citing money problems. In 1980, the company officially canceled the project. The remnants of the plant were sold to an alternative energy company that used the recycled materials to build windmills.