Left in Andover: Wrestling with electrical power

By Susan Leader
©2021 Telegraph Publishing LLC

Project Independence, President Richard Nixon’s response to the energy crisis created by OPEC’s 1973 oil embargo, called for blanketing America with 1,000 nuclear power plants by the end of the 20th century.

Although the theoretical advantages of nuclear power were great, NIMBY-style resistance proved even greater. Communities across the country resisted hosting the plants, viewing them as existential threats to loved ones health and the environment. Localities out west declined to become perpetual dumping grounds for underground storage of spent nuclear fuel rods trucked in from thousands of miles away.

In 1977, at age 26, as a member of Greenleaf Harvesters  living at Steppingstone Farm in Marlow, N.H., I became involved in the fight against siting a nuclear power plant at Seabrook, N.H. Ignoring two local town meeting votes against the plant, Public Service Company of New Hampshire expedited construction plans in the New Hampshire coastal town.

Organizing as the Clamshell Alliance, 2,000 activists from across the area divided into affinity groups of around a dozen members each to train for non-violent civil disobedience.

I believed my choices were either to be complicit with the nuclear power industry or to live without electricity. I had numerous friends who lived up to the latter ideal. In 1977, wind and solar power were still in the aspirational phase, reserved for the wealthy or technically gifted.

My friends and I joined a Keene-based affinity group. We applied ourselves to learning effective techniques of passive resistance in preparation for mass protest and arrest at Seabrook on May 2, 1977.

My passion against nuclear power was not new. In 1974, after I returned to Andover from my pottery apprenticeship in Japan, my family pitched in to build me a cabin on our property in Andover. I insisted on locating it far from the road, without access to power lines. This was a decision I did come to regret some 10 years later, when I found myself stuck there living in primitive conditions with an infant daughter.

Had it been available at the time, the following cautionary account of pre-electricity days in Andover might have given me pause. Yes, I did in the end come to identify with mid-1930s Finn Hill homesteader Vera Lundberg. In her later years she expressed herself thus:

I busied myself successfully and kept thinking of the old hymn ‘Work for The Night is Coming’! It took on new significance! I cleaned the chimneys and filled the lamps, and fed the chickens and stuffed the fires and kept wishing it  wouldn’t get DARK.

Although the good-natured Lundberg omits mention of this, I can only imagine her exasperation in knowing that Peaseville Schoolhouse, just a short walk away, had been hooked up to electric power lines ever since 1920.

Family helps to build Susan’s home, which was without electricity for 10 years.

The coming of electricity to rural America had a profound effect, easing the daily burdens of life. But, washing machines to refrigeration to lighting barns for evening chores, the succor arrived very unevenly.

This is not unlike our current predicament where different towns and parts of towns experience deep inequity to internet connectivity, affecting everything from educational to economic opportunity.

Larger population centers in Vermont, with access to water power, gained the benefits of electrical power first. Rutland was the pioneer, lighting up in the mid- 1880s. Turn-of-the-century Burlington, Montpelier and even Ludlow joined the elite company.

Whereas Rowell’s Inn lit up in 1920, it took almost two more decades, 1938, for close-by Simonsville School to connect to the grid. FDR’s national 1935 Rural Electrification Administration completed the magical process. Federally sponsored crews raced from farm to farm stringing one minimal but life changing lightbulb from the ceiling of each room.

In 1977, my youthful passion to fight the threat of nuclear power was undiminished by such historical consideration. Although I did come to appreciate the blessings of modern life, I maintain I was on the right side of history to reject nuclear power.

Guilford’s Vernon Yankee plant has now been decommissioned. Renewable power sources fight climate change while avoiding for Vermonters the danger of a nuclear meltdown such as occurred at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima, the latter coming upon its 10th anniversary.

A Seabrook resident registers her opposition to the plant.

Even so, less than a year ago, June 2020, a frightening accident involving a massive 125,000 pound nuclear storage cask (luckily empty) headed for Vernon occurred right here on Rte 11 in Andover.

The nuclear reactor at Seabrook was eventually completed, going fully online in 1990. It now generates almost half of New Hampshire’s electrical power. Sited in a high density population area just 40 miles from Boston against the will of a local populace only partially mollified by concomitant economic opportunity, the plant remains controversial to this day.

Plans for a second, matching nuclear reactor at Seabrook never came to fruition. The disciplined peaceful resistance modeled by the “Clams” sparked a successful nationwide movement. Only 100 of Nixon’s proposed chiliad of nukes by Y2K were ever constructed.

My mother preserved my missives home from Grafton County Jail in Woodsville, N.H., where I was incarcerated after participating in the Seabrook protest. Here’s an excerpt, dated May 4, 1977:

Dear Ma + Pa,
Hi! I’m up way up north here in NH with 4 other very very very nice people. We are the only women out of Seabrook who pleaded “Guilty” to charges, sentenced to 30 days suspended and a $75.00 fine to be worked off @ $5.00 per day. So I plan to be at Grafton County Jail for 15 days total.

Jail of course is great. I’m fasting for a couple of days right now, excellent opportunity to do such. We hold our own morning and evening impromptu “services” on the cat walk. This morning is my turn to facilitate. I’m planning on 30 minutes of silence, some chanting, exercises and group back rubs.

The envelope contained Susan’s letter from jail.

The matrons are Ok, especially one we call Mama Melly, very compassionate. We will be permitted into the recreation room after three initial days of lock-up and get assigned work duties at the county nursing home which is contiguous to the jail. So we have a nice little women’s commune going here.

Being part of the occupation at Seabrook was a very fine experience. Our machinery for a functioning participatory democracy was only just being put to the test when we got busted.

I was in the “South Friendly” encampment and we had a march around on rocks and thru the woods and whatnot in long columns, meeting other columns across the marshes, etc, sort of like being in a Children’s Crusade or something.

Our affinity group stuck together really nicely. At 3 or 4 pm Sunday they announced we’d be arrested if we didn’t get off the property, but it wasn’t until 12 hours later (4 a.m.) that the last buses came to take away us away.

So we had a long night under the stars sitting around brewing hobo coffee and whatnot. Then they finally came for us. They were getting uptight because the few of us who remained were planning to block roads if we were still there by dawn. So they got a bit menacing and tried to scare us into cooperation getting into the buses.

Some of us went limp anyhow. They were sort of rough, twisted my arms and fingers and when I said I’d walk as soon as I got to the bus steps, they pushed me pretty hard into the bus. Aside from that short incident most all the people booking us and the National Guardsmen were darned sympathetic.

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Filed Under: Community and Arts LifeLeft in Andover

About the Author: Vermont native and noted potter Susan Leader grew up on Popplewood Farm in Andover. At age 17, she was inspired to take up the potter's wheel by "a charismatic potter" from the Society of Vermont Craftsman. She spent 18 months apprenticing at pottery villages throughout Japan. She returned to Popplewood Farm, where she and her husband, fiddle player John Specker, raised their two daughters.

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