Josna Rege

284. Step by Step

In 1970s, 2010s, health, history, Inter/Transnational, Music, Nature, parenting, people, places, Politics, Stories, United States on September 26, 2014 at 11:04 pm
Helen Caldicott

Helen Caldicott

Step by step the longest march can be won, can be won
Many stones can form an arch, singly none, singly none
And by union what we will can be accomplished still
Drops of water turn a mill, singly none singly none.
                    (sung here by Pete Seeger; try it as a round)

In January 1977, I quit my job, the first job that had directly utilized my newly-minted degree in English, and embarked on what would be seven years of intense anti-nuclear activity. What on earth possessed me to do it?

I had been working for about a year as a technical editor at an environmental research firm. Well, that was what it called itself. In fact, it hired itself out to utility companies that operated coal-burning or oil-fired power pants, helping them through the environmental impact process mandated by the government under the provisions of the 1970 Clean Air Act. Throughout 1976 I labored in good faith with obscure, convoluted language (if what I was reading can be graced with that noble word) and returned my marked-up reports to the scientist-writers in the interests of clarity and truth. But as the months wore on something started to become clear, and it wasn’t the prose.

Well, it has a green cover!

Well, it has a green cover!

When the revised drafts were returned, I would look eagerly for the problem passages I had marked up. More often that not, I wasn’t able to find them. When I did, I would discover that they had been moved from the report summary at the beginning of the document into Appendix C at the very end; more often, they had simply been deleted. What finally dawned on me was that I was inadvertently leading the writers—who, it must be remembered, were ultimately working for the electric utilities who owned the power plants—to the very points that they were attempting to cover-up. It turns out that when people are lying, or twisting the truth, their language becomes as contorted as their logic. In my naïveté I had seen myself as serving the public and the cause of clean air and water by helping to deliver clear and accessible environmental impact reports. But in fact I was helping the firm, and the fossil-fuel industry it served, to identify the tell-tale passages in their reports so that they could better conceal or eliminate them altogether, circumventing the environmental regulations rather than cleaning up their act.

This long preamble is to give you some idea of my dispirited frame of mind when I drove up with Andrew to the little coastal town of Seabrook, New Hampshire in August,1976, to attend a rally in opposition to the construction of a for a nuclear power plant to be built on the tidal salt marshes. I can’t remember exactly how we had heard of the event, but I had been alerted to the dangers of nuclear power back in January of that year, before I had even started my job, while fiddling with the radio dial on a cross-country road trip. Driving up the California coast late one night, we tuned in to the voice of an Australian pediatrician, Dr. Helen Caldicott, warning urgently of the health dangers of even low levels of ionizing radiation, and the need to stop the proliferation of nuclear power as a source of electricity. It wasn’t an issue I had been aware of before, but something in what she said or how she said it awoke in me a corresponding sense of urgency, and I resolved to get involved when I returned home. As it turned out, I took the editing job instead and, coming home every night tired from the day’s work, failed to follow up on my earlier resolution until eight months later, when I attended what turned out to be the second public event organized by the then-fledgling Clamshell Alliance.

On August 1, 1976, 18 people entered the Seabrook nuclear power plant’s construction site and were arrested. (Lionel Delevingne)

On August 1, 1976, 18 people entered the Seabrook nuclear power plant’s construction site and were arrested. (Lionel Delevingne)

What I participated in that day was a support and send-off rally for a small group of 18 local anti-nuclear activists who had decided to commit civil disobedience at the construction site to draw attention to the danger posed by the proposed nuclear power plant. They had already attempted to raise their concerns through the regular legal process but had been ignored. Now they felt that they had no recourse left but to put their bodies on the line.

My own feelings of despair and disempowerment informed my emotional responses as Elders of a local Native American tribe inaugurated the rally with a solemn invocation to Mother Earth, and then each person who was about to commit civil disobedience spoke in turn about why they had decided to do so. As I watched I did not feel part of the group, but rather, a skeptical, if sympathetic, onlooker. I felt that I knew the forces they were up against and by contrast they looked pathetic, ineffectual, and naïve in the extreme. Their words and brave actions moved me to tears, but they were tears of impotent rage.

Seabrook, New Hampshire, April 30th, 1977

Seabrook, New Hampshire, April 30th, 1977

clamIn fact, what I thought was worldly wisdom on my part was a deep, self-defeating cynicism. For that little group of 18 souls in August had swelled a hundredfold just eight months later. I was part of that groundswell, giving notice at work in January and beginning to drive into Cambridge every week to work with Boston Clamshell toward the April 27th occupation, when thousands of anti-nuclear activists converged on Seabrook from all over the country for a non-violent occupation of the the building site. Every day of the fourteen days that 1414 of its members were imprisoned in New Hampshire National Guard armories, the Clamshell Alliance made history—and the front page of the New York Times. And when at last they were released on their own recognizance, they took the struggle home to towns all over the United States with nuclear power plants under construction, forming decentralized groups modeled on Clamshell. By the end of the decade the nuclear power industry was at a standstill. Although, sadly, the Seabrook nuke went on to be built, many more were shelved, stopped, or dismantled, and it would take the industry 30 years to regroup.

Ionizing radiation is particularly insidious because one cannot see, smell, or feel it, and yet the emissions from radioactive elements can continue for hundreds, in some cases thousands, of years. We used to laugh at ourselves saying, time and time again, that we needed to stop the nuclear power industry now, for the sake of our children, and our children’s children, and our children’s children’s children (and so on, you get the idea, ad infinitum), but we were in deadly earnest.

How is it that I, and so many young people like me, came to feel so strongly about something whose effects are invisible and long-term? For even if the radiation from a nuclear reactor leak were to kill you, it might not do so for 25-30 years or more, and then too in the form of a cancer whose cause was untraceable. Of course, ionizing radiation from all sources accumulates in our bodies and concentrates in our organs over the course of a lifetime, and every individual has a different sensitivity and threshold, so that it is impossible to predict how much is too much, when a battered cell will finally break down and turn against us. And beyond us as individuals, radiation builds up in our environment—the air, the water, and the food chain—the half-life of many radioisotopes extending to hundred, even thousands of years. Still, we were living in a society where narrow self-interest and instant gratification were encouraged and both media and the education system cultivated short-term memory.

Hot radioactive particles—how much can our children take?

Hot radioactive particles—how much can our children take?

I don’t remember much of what Helen Caldicott said on the radio that night, nearly forty years ago. What I do remember, though, was enough to inspire me to resign from my job. When we become parents, she said, our best, most tender, most altruistic selves look to our children’s well-being before all else. Every night at bedtime, before we tuck them into bed and read them a story, we teach them how to brush their baby teeth, so as to prevent cavities and instill in them a lifetime of good habits. But nuclear power makes nonsense of all our efforts. What is the point of each of us caring so lovingly for our own children while the nuclear fuel cycle is allowed to run rampant, releasing deadly radiation into the earth, air, and water, into our children’s lungs and their tiny, vulnerable organs? If we love our children and the planet we are bequeathing to them, it is our sacred duty to fight this menace to our future and the future of our children.

People's Climate March, September 21, 2014

People’s Climate March, September 21, 2014

So I quit my job and dedicated myself passionately to the future, the future of my still-unborn child and of us all. What sustained me for seven years after that first crucial step, though, was the joyful energy generated by working with other people to achieve a common goal, no matter how seemingly unassailable the forces arrayed against them. May the exuberant climate movement that brought 400,000 people to the streets of New York City last weekend bring the same energy to its diverse participants, for if we are to survive we are going to need staying power .

Looking south from Hampton to the Seabrook salt water marsh, and the Seabrook nuclear power plant.

Looking south from Hampton to the Seabrook salt-water marsh, and the Seabrook nuclear power plant beyond.

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents

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  1. Josna, I read this a day ago but have been traveling and didn’t have time to comment. This is such a powerful piece, i think, an affirmation of your education and evolution as a human being as well as an activist.

    There are certain causes or events that awaken something deep inside us, and when that happens, one person does make a difference. I think those are the moments we feel our value as individuals and that we are the caretakers of something greater than ourselves.

    • Sammy, I have read that beautiful second paragraph of yours several times. Yes, you’re right, at such times we are both fully ourselves and much more than our individual selves. Thank you for very much for your response. I was afraid, after having written it, that it was too ponderous, self-involved, and sentimental. Now, even if it is all three, I think I’ll leave it be, and let it speak to whoever it speaks to.

      • You aren’t alone, Josna. I think most writers second-guess and it is heightened when we write about yourselves.

        Your writing is honest and sincere. There is always a melodic flow, similar to gentle waves lapping the shore. Soothing, rhythmic.

        You write “true.”

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