When your neighbor is nuclear
Wiscasset, Maine — The road to Ray and Pat Shadis's farmhouse turns off Route 1 just past the genteel white mansions of Wiscasset, "the prettiest village in Maine." It is narrow and steep, clinging to the edge of the ocean -- a dramatic contrast to the busy coastal highway littered with lobster-roll restaurants and raucous billboards.
The packed dirt road bumps to a stop four miles from the highway at the crest of a small hill. Down the grassy slope is the Shadises' home, a 100-year-old farmhouse that has seen better times and will see them again, if its owners have their way.
They want to stop nuclear power in Maine. They want to stop future nuclear development statewide, and they especially want to shut down the Maine Yankee Atomic Power Company's plant, just two miles over the water and woods from their house.
They have spent the past year and a half rustling up support, efforts that will culminate in a statewide referendum on Sept. 23, which will give the people of Maine a chance to make their voices heard. If the referendum is passed, nuclear power plants would be prohibited in Maine -- the one in Wiscasset would be shut down and no more would be built. In California and Maine, the voters passed referendum banning all future construction of plants, but the Maine voters could be the first to shut down an existing facility.
It's quiet here, the quiet that these refugees from New Jersey and West Virginia were seeking when they moved to Maine 11 years ago, when the nuclear power plant was merely a hole in the ground and the Shadises didn't give a thought to it. Their house is surrounded by the remains of once-believed automobiles and a stern-looking hedge of lilacs. The ubiquitous farm dog galumphs to meet me, followed closely by Pat.
As we settle into chairs in the kitchen, which is dominated by a huge wood stove and a table large enough to seat the whole Shadis family -- Ray, Pat, six children, and assorted pets -- Pat explains how they gradually came to feel that the nuclear plant is a danger to their lives.
It's nothing that they can put their fingers on, she hastens to add. Little things, like high counts of radioactive cesium 137 in the milk from their cows. A grotesquely deformed calf, spontaneously aborted, that she Shadises won't talk about. Nothing that you can definitely pin on the presence of Maine Yankee.
"I believe there are effects from the plant," Ray Shadis says. But they have chosen to base their referendum fight on what they definitely do know -- that nobody knows what effects that plant is having, and the available evidence strongly suggests to them that the possibility of harm outweighs the possibility of benefit.
"The thing that's really hard for us to take is that there's little disagreement on major points about nuclear power between what we find and what the industry thinks," Pat explains. "It's just that the industry chooses to take this risk."
She is referring to problems such as safety issues and waste disposal, problems exposed in the endless government material ("not radical, off-the-wall antinuke books or anything of that sort -- just about 99 percent of it is government material") she and her husband have been reading for months.
"Everything points to the fact that there are major problems with nuclear power . . . . And the industry chooses to say, "We have it all under control. The problems are there, but we'll fix them. They're there, but if you want the power you've got to live with this.' And I think that what we're saying is, "They're there and we don't think you have a solution to it nor will you find a solution in any reasonable amount of time. And no, we don't want to live with the risk.'"
When they moved to Maine in 1969, they shared the vague dreams of living the good life with countless others. They bought the run-down farmhouse, vacant for 30 years, and three acres of land three years later, planning to transform it gradually into a snug haven for their family, a farm that would take nothing from the land it couldn't return, an existence of using whatever comes by. "Most everything we use will someday crumble into nothingness," Ray says, proud of his planning.
Over the years, they have bought up about 100 acres of land, and ignored the house for the more important task of clearing land and existing on it.
"I don't have the conservationist's notion about trees and such. I like to see land productive in a healthy sort of way, so I don't have any problem about hacking down trees. If I could figure out a way to do it quickly, I'd hack down most of them," Ray, an artist and teacher, explains.
They believe that it is possible for them to "develop a day-to-day life that would be the least harmful to the rest of society and the rest of the planet," he sums up.
The nuclear power plant was there -- it came "on line" in 1972 -- but the possibility of problems from the plant was somehow far away.
"Like everybody else we felt that they were so remote that we were willing to kind of shunt it to the back of our minds, as far as really considering it was something that would affect our personal lives," Pat says.
But then came the nightmare at Three Mile Island, hot on the heels of an earthquake in Maine which had forced Maine Yankee officials -- reluctantly, say the Shadises -- to shut down the plant for tests.
"It was just a lot of things that really jarred us awake," Pat continued. "There was no reason on earth that the same thing [as three Mile Island] and worse couldn't happen just over the hill here."
They expected established antinuclear groups to be galvanized by the string of events in April 1979, but nothing happened. Instead, Pat and Ray Shadis and a few others organized a meeting at the town hall in Edgecomb.
Somewhere between 750 and 1,000 people packed the hall, which normally holds 350. They came on a rainy night to listen to a panel address different areas of concern and to speak their own minds.
"It was absolutely astounding as far as the sense of outrage that the people of the area had," Pat recalls.
The idea of a referendum question followes naturally from the meeting, and in short order, Ray became "official spokesperson" and Pat treasurer of the Maine Nuclear Referendum Committee (MNRC).
In fact, the drive to put the question as a referendum garnered more signatures (56,000) than any other petition in state history.
The house looks barely large enough to be home to eight people. The kitchen, which seems to be the whole of the downstairs, is crowded with the paraphernalia of eight lives. The gleaming copper-colored refrigerator, covered with antinuclear literature, stands in uneasy alliance with the massive, ancient stone sink. On the rough plaster walls hang Rays's paintings; in the corners stand his sculptures. An incongruous movie projector sits beside one of them.
The Shadises used to live on the income from Ray's artwork and part-time teaching. But he has abandoned that while he works on the referendum. Indeed, his studio, a cramped room tucked behind the kitchen, has disappeared under the heaps of paper work their antinuclear research has spawned. On one wall hangs a hand-drawn blue calendar, counting down the days to Sept. 23.
But perhaps the most telling indication of the Shadises' devotion to stopping nuclear power in Maine is a little black box. It sits in a dusty corner of Ray's studio, chirping about 20 times a minute. It is measuring the gamma radiation in the atmosphere.
It looks a transistor radio, except there is no tuning dial. It is supposed to chirp 20 times a minute -- that's the established "safe" amount of radiation anywhere. The box is hooked up to an alarm clock, and if the level of radiation should rise above a predetermined amount, the box trips a switch that shuts off the clock. The Shadises would then know at what time there has been too much radiation in the air.
That by itself wouldn't tell them much, but there are 25 other little boxes in the area. Eventually, MMRC people hope to have about 100 located within 10 miles of the plant. They would thus be able to track any large release of radiation in the area.
What has the little box told Ray and Pat Shadis?
"Nothing," Rays says. The clock has never been triggered. Ray's voice is a blend of grim relief and grim determination.
They explain the shortcomings of the box -- it only measures gamma radiation; it wouldn't tell you if there was a long, slow sigh of a release, just a huge, silent yell -- but they add that it is being improved. The box has been developed locally.
In fact, it seems that the entire MNRC effort is a local one. Although Edgecomb is headquarters, there are referendum committees in cities and towns throughout Maine; MNRC is the clearinghouse. Some of the committees operate by sponsoring concerts -- Portland brought Dan Fogelberg, Arlo Guthrie, and Peter, Paul, and Mary to Maine; others hold bake sales and sell buttons. Back in the early summer, the best guess was that there were close to 60 groups statewide.
"You know, that's one of the fun things about it," Pat says. "It's a labor of incredible dimension by people who are not professionals [at political work] but who saw the need and went after it."
Figures reported to the Maine secretary of state's office show that MNRC has raised about $70,000, nearly three-fourths of it from Portland. The Committee to Save Maine Yankee, the group working to defeat the referendum, has raised about $500,000 to date. Most of it has come from out of state. (Fifty percent of the plant's power goes out of state. Maine, whose utilities own 50 percent of the plant, keeps the other half.)
Ironically, all this grass-roots work has kept Ray and Pat from talking to their neighbors about the issue. They have become so caught up that Ray has to stop and lean back to count up which of his neighbors agree with him.
"I feel badly that I have been so involved in trying to get this thing organized statewide that I have neglected my neighbors. . . . The ideal campaign, as we had it envisioned early on, was to really inflame people with the idea of speaking directly to their neighbors in organizing town by town and of making this thing a subject of consideration for Maine people as a community. That's going to happen, but it's going to happen in a much coarser way . . . through the media."
Not that the people in Wiscasset and Edgecomb are unaware of the Shadises' work. It's just that, well, Ray says, you just don't talkm about the heavy issues.
"There's this wonderful Yankee reserve -- 'wait and see' kind of judgment. . . . I think they are just waiting to see what information comes across.
"When I meet my neighbors, we talk about the goings-on in town, the school situation here, or the weather; we don't talk about the nuclear question."
It is obvious that Ray and Pat admire their neighbors, and in fact think that Yankee reserve might be Maine's saving grace.
"People here still have a sense of their personal worth and enfranchisement. They still believe in this country and they believe that they have rights within the system," Ray says. "Things are diminished in areas where people are overwhelmed by things that men have built. Here we are still a lot closer to basic values, and it's the very conservation of this area that makes our work a much more deliberate effort.
"It took a long time for all the hype and activity of Three Mile Island to sink in here in Maine, but it's going to take a doubly long time to erase that image."
There is little in Wiscasset to suggest that there is any controversial issus in town. Most of the signs posted in store windows are advertising fairs or auctions, not referendums. No effort is made to tell the thousands of tourists visiting this beautiful coastal area how to evacuate in case of trouble at the plant (although this is required by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission). And the signs to the plant itself are barely visible at 50 m.p.h. (Some wag has stuck a "No Nukes" sticker on the back of one.)
But if you find the correct turn off Route 1 several miles south of Wiscasset center, it's hard to miss the plant itself. Its huge, rounded head looms above the trees and power lines, looking rather like an overgrown beehive. At night, the Shadises say, its lights are visible from the hill near their home.
The 115 employees at Maine Yankee Atomic Power Company all park their cars facing outward, without excepion. Evidently there is a good-natured race out of the parking lot when the shift changes.Some of the employees wear their hearts on their bumpers -- plastering their cars with pleas to save their jobs and slogans questioning the reputations of several nationally known antinuclear people. No one wanders around outside; the grounds are silent except for an occasional indignant cackle from the loudspeaker.
The visitors' center is empty, except for the receptionist doing neddlepoint. There is a world's-fair type of exhibit that explains nuclear energy to the uninformed through plastic earphones and with a diorama that lights up. Little simulated uranium pellets stuck to a piece of cardboard with a giggling Reddy Kilowatt zagging by are offered as souvenirs.
"And I don't even glow in the dark!" the receptionist laughs.
Obviously these employees are satisfied with their jobs, for the most part. But it is only natural that there should be some who aren't. In fact, one of the state's most outspoken antinuclear activists is a former Maine Yankee employee, Alan Philbrook, who worked in the plant for two years.
In an interview included in an anthology of works by Maine artists (including Ray Shadis) published as a fund-raiser for MNRC, Mr. Philbrook explains how he found himself working in areas of the plant that he was not trained to handle, and how trucks "too hot [radioactive] to let in the plant" were let in (after traveling hundreds of miles of Maine), along with other incidents. He finally quit when he decided his children needed a dad more than they needed his salary.
Mr. Philbrook is currently a member of the Governor's Committee on the Decommissioning of Maine Yankee, to figure out what to do with Maine Yankee when the state is forced to shut it down because of its own radioactivity 22 years hence (nuclear power plants have a life span of only about 30 years, referendum or no). Nobody is quite certain what will happen to the plant; the technology does not exist yet to dismantle and cart the building and its contents away safely.
Mr. Philbrook appears to be the witness to Ray and Pat Shadis's fears: The nuclear industry has just too many unanswered problems for them to feel safe with the plant over the hill.
It is hard to deny that they would be trapped if there were an accident at the plant. Alexander Sidar III, who spent two years researching and writing a book entitled "The Dorset Disaster," which creates in chilling, precise detail what would happen in a nuclear disaster at a fictional plant in Connecticut, has applied his research for the book to devise a scenario of an accident at the Maine Yankee plant.
He plotted the "worst" accident, the one that would kill the most people. A cloud of radioactive material would head down the coast, immediately killing 12, 000 people and eventually 20,000 more (tossing aside problems to future generations for the moment). This "worst" accident would carry the plume toward the most heavily populated areas of Maine and away from the Shadis farm, perhaps allowing them a chance to escape.
The "best" accident, the one that would result in the fewest immediate fatalities because of the direction the plume of radioactivity would take, would carry the cloud straight over the Shadis farm.
To date, no one has found fault with Mr. Sidar's Connecticut scenario from which the Maine data is adapted. He says it is "straight out of" a federal reactor safety study done in 1975.
"Best" or "worst," the map of Maine makes it obvious that residents and tourists alike would have to travel through contaminated areas to reach uncontaminated ones. There is no evacuation plan for the area -- in fact, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission feels evacuation is impossible here.
Ray and Pat Shadis are waiting for Sept. 23. They know that if they win the referendum, they will still need to argue it out in court, since nuclear officials will undoubtedly challenge the referendum.
If the referendum fails, they plan to try to pay up their bills -- they've been putting patches on their patchwork income for the past year -- and move. Even that presents a problem: "Do we go further down the coast, so that we have more adequate warning time, and fight from there, or do we try to find someplace on this planet where the hazard isn't immediately present?" Ray sighs.