I still can't get over the idea that I'm old enough to look back on a time 30 years ago. But it's really amazing that 30 years ago, I was already an adult -- of sorts; from my perspective at 51, 21 doesn't seem too "adult" to me, even if that's technically true.
Thirty years ago yesterday I was one of the 15,000 to 20,000 people who marched in Shoreham to protest the nuclear power plant then under construction. It was a historic event. Never before had such a large crowd gathered anywhere on Long Island to protest anything. Throngs of people jammed the narrow, winding roads in the community surrounding the power plant. I was excited to be one of them, and had been looking forward to it from the moment I'd heard it was going to happen.
So were a lot of people. A nuclear power plant called Three Mile Island in western Pennsylvania saw to that. On March 28, 1979, one of its reactors suffered a cooling system malfunction that caused a partial core meltdown. Two weeks before the accident, a movie called "The China Syndrome" was released. It was about a meltdown at a nuclear reactor eerily similar to what happened at Three Mile Island, only much worse. The accident at Three Mile Island, combined with the hit movie (whose box office was enhanced by the real-life scare in Pennsylvania, no doubt) helped raise public awareness across the country, and anti-nuclear activists took advantage of that by staging the massive June 3 march and protest.
In truth, I was excited to be part of any big protest. I was too young to participate in the political activism of the 1960s and watched with fascination and awe as the events of the civil rights, women's rights and anti-war movements unfolded, each with its own massive protests and demonstrations -- people getting together for a cause, making their voices heard, showing solidarity against "the establishment" and effecting social change. The no-nukes movement, part of the larger environmental movement, would give me and people of my generation a chance to speak out on an important issue, to work for social change and environmental justice.
I was such a romantic. But the march was anticlimactic for me.
It rained all day that Sunday. The crowd was orderly and quiet, save for some "hell no, we won't glow" and "no nukes" chants. I didn't get arrested for storming the gates, or see anyone get arrested for storming the gates. In fact, I didn't even see the gates. There was such a crowd in those narrow streets, I never got anywhere near the gates. In fact, I didn't lay eyes on the plant itself until years later, in 1985, when I'd moved back to eastern Suffolk after spending six years in NYC. I drove down the town beach road in Wading River to look at the power plant's imposing concrete tower. It was winter, and the area was desolate. I remember feeling spooked by it.
In the years following the march, I would not become an environmental activist, though I would always remain keenly interested in environmental issues. That September, I started law school. And except for one demonstration at the United Nations, I wouldn't be part of any large-scale protests again ¬ -- until two years ago, when I went to a peace march in D.C.
Activism does create change. And Shoreham is a case in point. When the tide of public opinion turned against the nuclear plant, LILCO had a losing battle on its hands. Though LILCO didn't make out too bad: It sold the new public power authority an aged transmission system for a very hefty price -- and kept the income-producing generating facilities for itself. The ratepayers got shafted in that deal. And the taxpayers got shafted after the tax litigation was settled, creating a disastrous situation for the Shoreham-Wading River school district, the effects of which its residents are still coping with today.
But look out: The nuclear power industry is poised to try for a comeback. Nuclear power has a very small carbon footprint. It will help our end reliance on foreign oil. It's clean, efficient and economical, industry insiders argue. But is it safe? And, even if the risk of generating nuclear power is acceptably low, what do we do with the radioactive waste created by nuclear power plants? There are no good answers to that question yet. But global warming, "peak oil" -- the declining world supply of oil -- and international politics are prodding more people to rethink the nuclear option, even though those pivotal questions go unanswered. Meanwhile, the promise of renewable alternative energy still remains largely unfulfilled, since investment in developing solar, wind and hydropower technologies was never much of a priority in America. You can't own the sun, or the wind, or the tides. Now, uranium -- that's another story.
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