In the 1970’s, there was a national ferment against the construction and operation of commercial nuclear power reactors with many being built in geologically vulnerable and/or highly populated areas. At the root of that controversy, unknown to the general public except bureaucrats at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the nuclear industry‘s high priced lawyers, were a handful of exceptional women who became ‘intervenors’ against utility applications during the NRC’s licensing process.
Created by Congress in 1974, the NRC’s mission was for "the development, use, and control of atomic energy to promote world peace, improve the general welfare, increase the standard of living, and strengthen free competition in private enterprise." Nowhere in its Mission is mention of protecting the public health and safety while the aforementioned goals have long since been deemed a failure.
In order to participate in an NRC licensing hearing, an individual must file a petition to intervene within 30 days of public notice, identify an ‘interest’ that may be affected and include at least one “admissible” contention which the person seeks to litigate. Once granted ‘standing,’ the petitioner becomes a legal party to the proceedings. The NRC further states that in order to “participate, the public must explain the nature of their interest and set forth the reasons and bases for their concerns.”
The NRC’s Adjudicatory Process identifies the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board as administrative judges who are “employees of the NRC” yet have the peculiar distinction of being “independent from the NRC staff. The judges have no stake in the outcome of a proceeding and reach objective decisions based on the record.” The ASLB conducts public hearings, makes rulings on the proceedings and ultimately makes a license recommendation to the full Commission
As the NRC staff discovered almost 40 years ago, none of these intervening women were deterred or intimidated despite an NRC public participation process that contained considerable hurdles not designed for easy public access. Candidate Obama’s opinion in a 2008 interview with the Keene Sentinel editorial board that “the NRC is a moribund agency that needs to be revamped and has been captive of the industry it regulates” remains as true today as it did in the 1970’s.
They were all middle aged women or older and most had been housewives much of their adult lives. All educated, they had no experience, with one exception, of dealing with government bureaucrats or nuclear energy issues yet all displayed highly developed built-in BS detectors. Each was feisty and knew a dog-and-pony show when they saw one. With not a shrinking violet among them, none succumbed to deliberate efforts to confuse them or intimidation by snooty Ivy League law degrees.
Most worked from their dining room tables interpreting lengthy, complex interrogatories from utility attorneys and funded their interventions at great personal expense – both monetarily and emotionally. Each innately exhibited leadership qualities as they understood their role to educate an uninformed public and an often apathetic media to the immediate and long term health and safety hazards of nuclear reactor operations.
* Already in her 70’s when she organized the Citizens Committee for Protection of the Environment in 1966, Irene Dickinson easily became the heart-center of the “Intervening Women’s” network. With the energy of a teenager, Irene opposed Consolidated Edison’s plans at the Indian Point location, 34 miles north of New York City with vigor and as her efforts spread around the country, she was readily available for strategic consultation and technical advice as well as a valuable resource on anticipating tactics from the NRC and nuclear industry.
Under the pressure of reams of NRC inspection reports and depositions to be answered, Irene became a savvy, proficient intervener and a persistent questioner who would not be denied. She introduced a multitude of State and Federal officials to more than they ever wanted to know about the hazards of nuclear pollution, radioactive spent fuel, seismic faults, inadequate evacuation plans and ‘abnormal occurrences.’
By 1979, she turned over voluminous files containing over 6,000 pieces, all alphabetized and catalogued in 22 boxes, to Columbia University’s archival collections. Thanks to her efforts so many years ago, former Governor Mario Cuomo, then Senator Hilary Clinton and current Governor Andrew Cuomo have all called for a shutdown of the Indian Point plant..
* In 1973, Carrie Barefoot Dickerson was 56 years old and the grandmother of five when she became aware of plans to build two GE nuclear reactors near her farm in northeast Oklahoma, setting for the musical Oklahoma and near Will Rogers’ childhood home. A former school teacher and later author, Dickerson formed the Citizen’s Action for Safe Energy and the legal challenge to the proposed Black Fox Power Plant was on. As a registered nurse, Dickerson questioned the health effects of nuclear waste and the daily release of radioactive emissions during routine operations that has been linked to birth defects and an epidemic of cancers.
In 1982, after an arduous nine year battle with 500 citizens arrested at the site in 1979, her retirement savings depleted and her farm mortgaged, Black Fox became the first nuclear reactor to be canceled due to a combination of legal and citizen action during construction. Until her death in 2006 at 89 years old, Carrie Barefoot Dickerson continued to actively promote safe, renewable energy sources.
. * In 1967, when 48 year old Midland, Michigan resident Mary P. Sinclair’s letter to the editor questioning the safety of a proposed nuclear reactor along Lake Michigan stirred considerable heat, she knew she had a tiger by the tail. A former technical writer for the Atomic Energy Commission, armed with a home fax machine and full size photocopier, Mary Sinclair became an NRC intervener. By the early 1980’s, the sinking and cracking of buildings designed to contain the plant’s twin reactors was discovered. By 1983, Dow Chemical pulled out of the project; by 1984, Consumers Power backed out of its contract after spending $4 Billion with construction 85 % complete and by 1987, the Midland nuclear project was converted into a natural-gas fueled power plant.
During her years as a nuclear intervenor, Sinclair endured considerable community ire when the family car’s brake lines were cut, their mail box bombed, her husband’s business boycotted, receipt of life- threatening letters and being spat upon while grocery shopping. In commenting on Sinclair’s role in cancellation of the Midland reactor, a spokesman for Consumers Power said, “I want to blame her but I don’t want to give her any credit.” In 1994, Mary Sinclair earned a PhD in Environmental Communications at 75 years of age and continued to question the storage of spent fuel at-reactor sites 300 yards from the shore of Lake Michigan until her death in early 2011.
* In 1967, Vermont Yankee Power Company announced plans to construct a nuclear power reactor along the Connecticut River. By 1971, Atomic Energy Commission’s (forerunner of the NRC) public hearings began as Esther Poneck organized the New England Coalition on Nuclear Pollution to intervene against construction. Since the plant was situationally-located, formal interveners included the States of Vermont, New Hampshire and Massachusetts with NECNP attracting scientists of national stature from neighboring universities as expert witnesses. The following year, the utility, citing an emergency lack of electrical capacity (with no supporting documentation), was granted an ‘interim’ operational license. The AEC rejected nuclear waste as a relevant issue in a licensing proceeding since storage of nuclear waste would be resolved “at a later time,” presumably by the Federal government.
Descendant of a Quaker family that dates back to (almost) the country’s founding and owner of a 500 acre farm 20 miles north of the proposed reactor, Poneck, a psychologist and member of the first graduating class of the New Jersey College for Women in 1918, was joined by her equally-formidable daughter Diana Sidbotham, a 1954 Vassar College graduate and classical singer. The mother-daughter tag team continued their opposition to nuclear power including the Seabrook reactors which continue to operate without an approved emergency evacuation plan.
Poneck, known as a Grand New England Lady, continued to oppose nuclear projects throughout New England until her death in 1991 at 91 years of age.
* Dr. Judy Johnsrud established the Environmental Coalition on Nuclear Power in 1970 when she became the original intervener against Three Mile Island construction in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Johnsrud went on to participate as an intervener against construction of the Limerick nuclear power plant and the proposed Peach Bottom reactor, both located in high population density areas. With a Ph.D in Geography and a brilliant analytical mind, Johnsrud analyzed the features of each site and today, the Limerick plant is considered to be the third highest earthquake risk in the United States
A longtime citizen activist who criss-crossed the country speaking to safe energy groups and testifying before the NRC and State regulatory commissions, Judy is considered an expert on all aspects of nuclear power and remained active until health considerations forced her recent retirement at 80 years of age.
* With a BA in Anthropology from the University of Michigan in 1954, Kay Drey made her first speech against nuclear power in 1974 before a Missouri State Senate Committee. In 1976, Drey became state-wide coordinator of the Citizens for Reformed Electric Rates which sponsored Proposition 1, a successful ballot initiative against a rate increase to finance construction of the Calloway Nuclear power plant in Fulton, Missouri which passed with 65% of the vote.
Drey participated in the intervention against the Calloway reactor which began operation in 1984 and the cancellation of the Marble Hill nuclear plant in Indiana and provided expert testimony on operating safety issues at the Dresden reactor in Joliet, Illinois. Now 77 years old, Kay continues a 25-year effort to clean up nuclear waste from the uranium purification sites located in downtown St. Louis.
* A music and English Literature major at the University of Vermont in 1950, June Allen organized the North Anna Environment Coalition in Virginia when she learned from a local geologist that the proposed nuclear reactors at North Anna, 86 miles south of Washington, D.C., sat astride an existing geologic fault.
Soft-spoken and well-dressed, Allen’s investigative talents and ability to cut-through utility and NRC double-speak were apparent as she became an eloquent, hard-nosed intervener in 1972 pointing out what she saw as collusion between the NRC and Virginia Electric Power Company. A classical pianist who wore pearls, Allen testified before Congress identifying the “nuclear-industrial complex” as an inherently unsafe technology and frequently attended VEPCO stockholder meetings. On one occasion, when spied in the audience, VEPCO’s Chairman stopped the meeting, extended an arm, pointed a finger directly at June and announced with great indignation, “There is Mrs. Allen.”
After the reactors at North Anna began operation, June continued to expose the health effects of radiation and as she succumbed to breast cancer in 2010 which she she believed to be caused by radiation exposure.
* A graduate of the University of North Carolina with an English major in 1949 and once part
of Walter Cronkite’s staff at CBS in New York City, Faith Young first learned of the Tennessee Valley Authority’s plan to build the world’s largest nuclear complex from the morning edition of the Nashville Tennessean. Young’s 150 acre beef cattle ranch was one mile from the site of the proposed four GE reactors to be built at Hartsville, 50 miles northeast of Nashville along the Cumberland River, and amidst a historic rural farming community of Dixon Springs with antebellum homes that date back to 1787.
One-half of a southern belle duo, Steel Magnolia #1, Faith organized the Concerned Citizens of Dixon Springs and intervened with the NRC in 1973 as construction began at Hartsville in 1975. As a result of President Carter’s direction to review TVA’s planned reactors, all reactors at Hartsville were cancelled by 1984 as too expensive and unnecessary with a $2.5 billion ‘white elephant’ cooling tower. still visible today from Young’s farm.
In 1985, Young was arrested while speaking at a TVA meeting on the Watts Bar reactor and held in Knoxville County Jail until the hearing concluded at the end of the day. The next morning’s headline read “TVA Arrests Two Grandmothers.”
* While not a formally designated intervener but as a direct result of the Hartsville intervention, Steel Magnolia #2 Jeannine Honicker, who was arrested with Young in 1985, filed a 92 page Petition with the NRC in 1978 to shut down the entire nuclear industry based on excessive radon emissions from the milling and mining of uranium (with a half life of 4.5 billion years). The Petition was heard by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1982.
A leukemia diagnosis for Honicker’s 19 year old daughter as she read Dr. John Gofman’s book “Poisoned Power” was enough to motivate the Nashville native to become an anti-nuclear activist. Today a 78 year old Mary Kay hostess, Honicker continues her efforts for a safe energy future, she recalls that her daughter’s illness was ‘too high a price to pay for electricity.”
After the first nuclear chain reactor split the atom in 1942, it was only a matter of time before an industry would figure out how to create an extremely complex, danger and expensive way to boil water courtesy of U.S. taxpayer subsidies. The Intervening Women were quick to discover an ingrained NRC resistance to ‘abnormal events’ as evidence of recurring safety problems and ‘isolated incidents’ were “lacking specificity.” Touted today by President Obama as a ‘clean’ non-polluting energy,' nuclear reactors are known to release radioactive gases and liquids during routine daily operations. In the wake of Fukushima, the NRC and nuclear industry representatives continued to offer faulty assurances of immunity from Japanese radiation which has since been declared the world’s most catastrophic nuclear accident.
The Intervening Women were the first American citizens to publicize the scientific consensus that radiation damages cellular DNA, that there is no safe dose of radiation, that even low-level radiation exposure is cumulative and that our children are most vulnerable.
Today, exposure to radiation is a well-known risk factor for thyroid cancer as a 2009 National Cancer Institute Report cited an “alarming” unexplained 6.5% increase in thyroid cancers from 1997 – 2006. As an increase of 11,000 childhood thyroid cancers have been traced to Chernobyl and a recent UK study found ‘significant excess’ of childhood leukemia near nuclear energy sites, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences is currently conducting a study of cancer risks near NRC licensed facilities.
Four of the Intervening Women are gone - yet all remain legends within the safe energy movement that continue to spread their message of safe energy across the country. In the aftermath of Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and Fukushima, their legacy has grown, each a true American Heroine, extraordinary women with extraordinary accomplishments, as they followed a sometimes lonely and bitter path.
Almost half a century later, the Intervening Women deserve to be honored for their pioneering efforts, their diligent research and analysis and their persistent commitment to a safe and secure planet for all the world’s children.