Go simple or go nuclear

By Daniel Dunkle | Apr 18, 2019
Source: The Courier-Gazette This 1979 photo shows smoke rising from a local plant, but it tapped into concerns at the time about the recent nuclear accident at Three Mile Island.

In early April 1979, people in Rockland joined the rest of the country in worrying about the potential consequences of nuclear power.

The partial meltdown at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania started March 28, 1979, and caused small amounts of radioactive gasses to be released into the atmosphere. This sent shock waves through the country and severely damaged the public's trust in nuclear power.

The Courier-Gazette makes a quick and somewhat odd reference to it in the April 5, 1979, edition. The photo shows a cloud of smoke that looks a bit like a mushroom cloud rising above a residential street. The slug on it is "Smoke Signal," and the caption states that the cloud is from the Martin Marietta plant in Thomaston. The caption also includes a parenthetical note that this has nothing to do with the nuclear reactor problems in Harrisburg, Pa. The reference seems almost humorous in tone. That was in the Thursday edition.

By Saturday's paper, April 7, 1979, it seemed the paper was taking this very seriously. A story on the front page above the masthead ran with the headline, "Three Mile Island Incident Still Needs Attention.... Clamshell Alliance," referring to concerns raised by the Belfast Camden Clamshell anti-nuclear power group.

Coverage continued. On April 10, the lead story was, "Coastal Evacuation Plan Geared For Attack Not For Possible Nuclear Reactor Accidents."

Maine had its own nuclear power plant, Maine Yankee, which operated from 1972 to 1996.

I grew up during the Cold War, and I was terrified by the possibility of nuclear war and nuclear meltdowns. The concept of radiation, something you couldn't see or escape from, destroying you, gripped me in a way that was traumatizing. It was something that affected my generation deeply.

It was a Maine girl, Samantha Smith, who at the age of 10, wrote a letter to Yuri Andropov seeking to find peace between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. That was in 1982. I was a year younger than she, and while I shared her fears, I was more engaged with Masters of the Universe figures than international diplomacy at the time.

Today, nuclear power poses an interesting question. Until they can come up with a way to safely dispose of or eliminate the creation of nuclear waste, I will always oppose it, but the use of fossil fuels may do the planet in all the faster.

 

So I finally got around to reading Michael Finkel's book about the North Pond Hermit, "The Stranger in the Woods."

It's a fascinating, fun, quick read about Christopher Knight, a man who lived alone in the woods without talking to anyone, spending any money or engaging in society for 27 years. He went into the woods at the age of 20 in 1986 and was arrested in 2013, bringing him back to society. He was arrested because, to survive out there, he had been burglarizing camps around the lake for years, stealing books, food, blankets and batteries.

Finkel interviewed him while he was in jail. The news story caught everyone's imagination and was a big sensation, as you probably remember.

I've been meaning to read about it ever since Bangor Daily News photographer Troy Bennett sang an original song about the North Pond Hermit while playing his banjo at the Maine Press Association dinner. That must've been in 2013.

Knight is a tough nut to crack. It's never entirely clear why he went out to the woods, or why, for that matter, we remain in society. He may be somewhat insane, but not as crazy as you would think. He came from a quiet, hardworking farm family, but there is no big trauma that we learn about that sent him spiraling. The more you analyze him, the more maddeningly enigmatic he remains.

The amazing facts in the case include that he never built a fire, for fear smoke would give away his campsite's location. I just can't imagine being that cold for that long. I couldn't make it one night.

Since there is only so much information to learn about Knight, the book is padded a bit with philosophical ruminations on the nature and history of hermits. It comes at you with a theme I encounter often while reading. There is this big argument that seems to go on about whether people should work as hard and as long as they do at jobs. Do I miss out on my life by working at a newspaper each week? Could he, in the silence of the woods, truly alone with his thoughts, find deeper truths than I will ever know?

Thoreau preached at us about these things.

It reminded me more of "Into the Wild," by Jon Krakauer, about another Christopher who abandoned human society. This was a really excellent book about Christopher McCandless, a young man from a good family who went out into the Alaskan wilderness and starved to death while trying to live off the land in an old bus. He left a journal and, like Knight, his story captured our imaginations.

I've always been a sucker for survival stories. I grew up reading "Lost on a Mountain in Maine," and "Call of the Wild," and later found great enjoyment in "Robinson Crusoe," and on and on.

On the conflict between work and life, I suppose the best option is to strike a balance. Work some and play some every day.

On this, I can tell you my mother is not conflicted. As soon as I turned 15, she said, "You need a job."

And Thoreau could be damned.

Daniel Dunkle lives in Rockland. He is author of the novel, "The Scrimshaw Worm." Send in your stories, photos and memories via email at: ddunkle@villagesoup.com; or snail mail to: 91 Camden St., Suite 403, Rockland, ME 04841. Vintage Ink columns rely on back issues of The Courier-Gazette for source material. Other sources will be cited specifically.

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Comments (1)
Posted by: Susan Reider | Apr 19, 2019 09:02

Dave, I lived within the 3-mile radius of Three Mike Island at the time of the accident. I totally agree with you that nuclear power should not remain as an energy source because of the waste issue. Unfortunately, we also have to be concerned now about terrorism, which was not an issue in 1979.

The experience of living through the TMI disaster was vividly brought back to life a few weeks ago when the local media in Harrisburg, Pa. ran a lot of stories on the 40th anniversary of the accident. The confusion and fear among the local population and even elected officials quickly gave way to anger over the basic incompetence of the company that ran the plant. Not until President Carter personally intervened and sent an official from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission did we start getting real information. That was about a week after the accident.

We really didn’t know what damage, if any, had been done to us. We didn’t know where to go or what to do. People felt like their lives had been reduced to what they could fit in the back of their cars. There was no emergency evacuation plan, no emissions testing, no nothing. And to this day, the jury is still out over whether the radiation emitted during the accident caused cancer spikes in local communities.

I wouldn’t wish that experience on anyone. As we try to wean ourselves off of fossil fuels, nuclear power should not be in the mix. The operators may be more competent than they were in 1979, but they still generate waste that is far more toxic than practically anything else we can imagine. The sooner we shut all the remaining plants down, the better, as far as I’m concerned.



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