ELISABETH KING, left, and Maria Holt review old handwritten records of radiation-monitoring “black boxes” at Holt’s home in Bath on Friday. The pair are collaborating on a book tentatively titled “The Death of Maine Yankee: Shutting Down a Nuke.” Individually and in tandem, the women have worked for decades to educate the public about the hazards of exposure to radiation.

ELISABETH KING, left, and Maria Holt review old handwritten records of radiation-monitoring “black boxes” at Holt’s home in Bath on Friday. The pair are collaborating on a book tentatively titled “The Death of Maine Yankee: Shutting Down a Nuke.” Individually and in tandem, the women have worked for decades to educate the public about the hazards of exposure to radiation.


Combined, Maria Holt and Elisabeth King have logged around a half-century of opposition to nuclear power.

For the next year, King said Friday, the duo will continue “chasing narratives” from a segment of that history for a book with the working title: “The Death of Maine Yankee: Shutting Down a Nuke.”

Pat Dostie, the state’s nuclear safety inspector in charge of overseeing the decommissioning of the Maine Yankee atomic power plant in Wiscasset, said he recalls the start of Holt’s and King’s work to monitor radiation emitted from the plant.

“They did an awful lot of work for a number of years,” Dostie said, “and they do have a story to tell.”

King, who lives in Woolwich, said that the pair decided to write the book to pass on what she and Holt learned in organizing a campaign aimed at shutting down Maine’s only nuclear power plant.

“It might help other people doing the same kind of thing,” King said.

The Maine Yankee Atomic Power Company shut down its Wiscasset plant in 1997 after 24 years of operation, but Holt and King remained concerned about the lasting impacts of the nuclear waste created during that time in Wiscasset and at nuclear reactors elsewhere. Nuclear waste generated by Maine Yankee continues to be stored at the site of the former power plant, awaiting long-delayed decisions by federal authorities on how to deal with radioactive byproducts created by the nation’s nuclear power industry.

New plants, old problem

Just last week, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission voted to approve construction of the first two new nuclear reactors since 1978, adding to a group of 104 active reactors, at a site in Georgia.

Holt, a former state legislator from Bath who drafted laws creating greater oversight for nuclear power plants in Maine, said she was “ so upset at the news.”

“It’s dismaying to me that they’re trying to build more plants,” Holt said.

Many of the nation’s older nuclear power plants are scheduled to go offline, as Maine Yankee did in 1997, but it may take another three centuries before radioactive elements such as the fission byproducts of cesium-137 and strontium-90 produced at such plants decay enough to be considered safe.

According to Dostie, radioactive material is considered dangerous to human life, as a general rule, for the duration of 10 half- lives, which is around 30 years in the case of cesium- 137 and strontium-90.

And those, Dostie said, are “the elements that have a relatively short halflife,” meaning the time it takes the radioactivity of a certain isotope to decrease by half.

In the case of elements like Plutonium 239, the half-life is much longer — estimated at 24,390 years.

In Wiscasset, much of the slow decay of spent fuel and dismantled reactor parts, occurring in 64 highsecurity dry-storage casks, may continue at the 12- acre site on Bailey Point for years to come.

“We’re looking at keeping this in our backyard for a much longer period of time than expected,” Dostie said. “Nobody knows how long it will be stored here.”

The Bailey Point site is one of several Independent Spent Fuel Storage Installations in such a position nationwide. The 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act obligated the U. S. Department of Energy to begin collecting the country’s spent nuclear fuel in 1998.

At that time, state officials were hoping that the federal government would haul that nuclear waste away, but President Barack Obama decided in 2009 to stop work on a national nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada that had, by then, been in development for more than 20 years.

The decision was followed by the formation of a Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future, which issued a report three weeks ago recommending that the U. S. government establish a central waste repository. However, the report did not say where.

In the town of Plymouth, Mass., that lingering question causes some frustration for local officials.

Last November, the town of Wiscasset received an invitation to join a “ Coalition of Nuclear Communities,” headed by the town of Plymouth, which states its purpose as amassing “one large voice in Congress” to ask for between $3.5 billion and $7.5 billion in federal money to support onsite safety storage for nuclear materials.

“Our communities continue their role of being de facto nuclear waste dumps,” the letter from Plymouth Board of Selectmen chairman William P. Hallisey Jr. states. “But we believe a coalition of communities can change that.”

Wiscasset Town Manager Laurie Smith said town officials have taken no action related to joining that coalition but expressed interest in learning more.

Aside from the issue of spent fuel storage, the federal report makes an array of recommendations for the future of nuclear power in the U.S., but none are along the lines of what Holt and King have suggested for decades: that nuclear power generation should stop.

A dynamic duo

The range of nuclear-related issues on Holt’s and King’s radar is much broader than just how to deal with nuclear waste, as just about every nuclear- related topic falls somewhere in their area of expertise.

Holt was educated as a public health nurse, starting at the University of Maine in her hometown of Farmington and moving on to Cornell University in New York. She married a physician before being elected to the Maine Legislature in the 1970s.

King was educated as an architect in a five-year program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1946. She married a physicist before working full time as a farmer raising livestock and produce on property in Woolwich.

Both were among a small minority of women at their respective schools. Both had penchants for activism that brought the young mothers to meet in front of Patten Free Library during protests of the Vietnam War, where they formed a lasting friendship.

By the time they met, both Holt and King said they had been haunted by the impacts of nuclear radiation on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, where the U. S. dropped atomic bombs that sped the close of World War II in the Pacific.

At a Pennsylvania hospital where she worked after college, Holt said, she had a firsthand experience years after the Hiroshima bombing with a couple who had been living outside of the city during the blast.

“ The couple came in because the wife had an appendectomy wound that would not heal,” Holt said Friday at her home in Bath.

“Because her immune system was knocked out from the radiation,” King added.

Holt said other previously common medical practices, such as using radiation-emitting fluoroscopies to judge the fit of a person’s shoe, also worried her.

For both, studies by people like Dr. Alice Stewart, connecting childhood leukemia to background radiation, confirmed many of their hesitancies about medical and nuclear radiation.

Over the years, Holt said, the duo’s personalities as well as their academic and professional experience, complemented each other.

“ I call myself Cassandra and I call her Pollyanna,” Holt said. “I worry a lot.”

“Worry is interest you pay on a debt you may never owe,” King said.

“ But there’s so much nuclear pollution in the world,” Holt said, “ and so many nuclear plants spewing this stuff out.”

Holt fears that the issue goes unnoticed, and that many of the younger people she speaks with about the issue “didn’t even know there was nuclear waste 10 miles from where they live.”

Generally, Holt said, she feels the public has been misled about the dangers of storing nuclear waste and she bristled at a suggestion in the Blue Ribbon Commission’s Jan. 26 letter to Secretary of Energy Steven Chu that, “ This generation has an obligation to avoid burdening future generations with finding a safe permanent solution for nuclear wastes they had no part in creating …”

“Most of us had no clue and were told that the waste was no problem,” Holt said. “We thought it was cheap energy.”

Most of all, Holt said, she worries “that it’s too late.”

“I worry that it’s going to hurt the genetics of life to the point that we can’t overcome it,” Holt said.

King takes a different tack.

“It’s too late to undo the last Ice Age, too,” King said. “We do what we can when we can do it.”

Watching the watchmen

When Holt and King turned their attention to Maine Yankee in the 1970s, they found they were starting with old data.

Reports from the power plant first went to the U. S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission before becoming accessible at the Wiscasset Public Library about two years later, Holt said.

Getting current records was the first legislative victory during her time in office, Holt said. In 1981 came another victory, Holt said, when the Maine Department of Health and Human Services was charged with establishing a statewide cancer-incidence registry.

Around the same time, shortly after the nuclear reactor meltdown at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania, Holt and King led the formation of the “ Citizen’s Monitoring Network,” which grew into a grassroots network of 35 gamma radiation monitors around the Mid-coast region aimed at the early detection of any excess radiation from Maine Yankee.

“We’re not relying on the fire department to tell us when there’s a fire,” King said. “So, why would we wait on the federal government or the industry to warn us when there is a nuclear event?”

In an article at the website “Nuclear Watch South,” King and Holt describe that group as “a coalition of fairly ordinary people, for the most part without impressive credentials or connections in high places in finance or government,” but they did come together with unique qualifications.

A 1998 history of the group identifies the founding members as “a small group including a molecular physicist, several retired engineers, the proprietor of a small electronics company, and a high school science teacher.”

With the design of “black box” radiation detectors by Will Byers of Newcastle, the network recorded daily readings from the alarms, which Holt said regularly reported releases of radiation that would have otherwise gone unchecked.

“ We took the monitoring into our own hands,” Holt said. “ We kept track and would ask ( Maine Yankee) about spikes in the numbers.”

Holt still has working black boxes at her home in Bath — and the handwritten ledgers of records from nearly 20 years of monitoring those alarms.

While the alarms don’t sound any more in Bath, the question of how to store the nuclear waste remaining in Wiscasset persists.

The Surry nuclear power plant in Virginia was the first, in 1986, to receive a license for the type of storage now used at Maine Yankee, which has no immediate end in sight.

“We have some history, but we don’t have a history on the scale of 200 years,” Dostie said.

For Holt, those unknowns are a source of concern.

“ We don’t know half of what we need to know, but I worry so much that nuclear power will go on,” Holt said.

[email protected]timesrecord.com

Comments are not available on this story.

filed under: