Guest Blog: Kelly McMasters

We’ve written about various things nuclear at Lofty Ambitions. (Click HERE for a post on “Radioactivity and Risk” that includes additional links at the end.) In fact, we’re in the midst of a series called “In the Footsteps” (Part 9 HERE) and will talk about that work next month in the Past Tense series at the Huntington Library. Our last guest blogger who wrote about nuclear issues was Ann Ronald (see that HERE). For this week’s guest blogger, as in that earlier case, we’d read the book but never met the author.

Kelly McMasters is the author of Welcome to Shirley, a memoir that’s being made into a documentary film. Her essays, reviews, and articles have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post Magazine, River Teeth, Newsday, and Time Out New York, among others. She is the recipient of a Pushcart nomination and teaches nonfiction writing at and in the School of the Arts and Journalism Graduate School at Columbia University. We hope to meet Kelly, perhaps next February at the AWP Conference, where Anna has organized a panel about writing creative nonfiction in the nuclear age.


KELLY MCMASTERS (photo by Mark Milroy)

Down the highway from my childhood house on the south shore of Long Island, rows of tall, scrubby pitch pines stretch their gnarled branches up to the sky. Their rough, plated trunks stand close together, creating a thick wall along the William Floyd Parkway. If the traffic is moving slowly enough, drivers passing by can catch a glimpse of a tall, barbed-wire fence snugged a few feet into the forest. This fence surrounds hundreds of acres of the island’s Pine Barrens, and hidden in the center sits the Brookhaven National Laboratory, a nuclear facility run by the federal government.

I grew up in a reactor community, but because of these Pine Barrens and because of the secret nature of the laboratory, my family didn’t know until it was much too late. We moved there in 1981, drawn by cheap rent, the proximity to the ocean, and a job for my father. Other neighborhood fathers worked at the lab, mostly in support capacities like maintenance, cafeteria, post office, or IT, but the full nuclear reality of the place was never understood, even by those employed there. Everyone thought it was just a lab, full of white-coated scientists who poured things into beakers and scribbled into notebooks, certainly nothing more nefarious than a few animal experiments.

(photo by Philip Trypuc)

This changed in 1989 when, after years of hand-wringing and covert testing, the facility was listed as a Superfund site. Local newspapers devoted covers to the story, and the findings were bleak: Three nuclear reactors had been built at Brookhaven, and all three had leaked.  Soil and drinking water was contaminated with Cesium 137, Plutonium 239, Radium 226, and Europium 154. Fish from the rivers whose headwaters started on the lab property tested high for heavy metals and local deer registered high levels of Cesium 137 in their bodies. Underground plumes of radioactive tritium stretched out towards Shirley. But my hometown was not the only place affected. Beneath the Pine Barrens is the recharge basin for one of the largest sole-source drinking water aquifers in the country, serving more than three million people on the island. The lab and its leaking reactors were located right in the center. It would take 300,000 years for the radioactive material released to reach levels safe enough for human interaction. That’s longer than Long Island itself has even existed.

Since the Fukushima Daiichi disaster six months ago, ghost names from the past have been shuffling up from the sands of our collective memories, like the soft bodies of silver-gray stingrays, invisible until a flap of their wings sends up swirls of sand, muddying the water and pulling them into focus. Chernobyl. Three Mile Island. Enola Gay. With these names, nuclear fears have jumped back into the spotlight: A string of earthquakes and wildfires across the United States have shuttered reactors, an explosion at a French nuclear power plant (the safest! the smartest!) injured four workers and left one person dead, and Iran’s first nuclear power plant powered up. All while the nuclear lobby continues to insist that reactors are clean and green, a friendly fix-it for our oil and coal gorged economy, ignoring the fact that they aren’t economically viable or insurable and that we still have no plans for the ever-accumulating waste.

But while the natural disaster scenarios and stories of radiation-laced milk, crops, and human bodies in Japan splash across the headlines, another string of names marches quietly in the background. Braidwood. Limerick. Indian Point. Vermont Yankee. Yucca Mountain. And Shirley. My hometown of Shirley has been struggling along with a class-action lawsuit brought against the lab for damages to health and property and the environment. Like Shirley, the reactor communities of Braidwood and Limerick complain of cancers, autoimmune diseases, high rates of miscarriages and birth defects, skin diseases, and other mysterious ailments. Like Shirley, reactors at Braidwood, Limerick, Indian Point, and Vermont Yankee have leaked tritium, Cesium-137, Strontium-90, and various other pollutants. In fact, a recent study showed that tritium leaks have been found at 48, or nearly three-quarters, of U.S. reactor sites.

Last year, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) was tasked by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to conduct a long-term epidemiological study on the health effects and risks in U.S. reactor communities. During the Fukushima emergency, U.S. officials recommended that Americans within a 50-mile radius of the compromised reactors evacuate. According to 2010 census data, one-third of all Americans, or 116 million of us, live within a 50-mile radius of a commercial nuclear reactor. Add in the national laboratory system, of which the Brookhaven National Lab is a part, and that number only increases.

Even though one in every three Americans is potentially effected, and even though reactor communities have been calling for such studies for decades, before the NAS study began, there had never been a large-scale study of low-level radiation from nuclear reactors and their effects on human health, making it convenient and easy for the nuclear lobby to discount any connection between unexplained cancer clusters and other health issues and proximity to nuclear reactors and all that they spew. There is moderate hope that in a few years this may change with the NAS results, though most understand that, these days, scientific studies have become nearly as political as tea. But those of us who have lived in reactor communities know enough.

So forget about the tsunamis. Forget about the earthquakes and the floods and the wildfires. The real danger isn’t in the natural disasters or the worst-case scenarios. Before we get to Blue Ribbon Panels about the unsolvable waste issue, the dirty fuel harvest cycle, and the insanely high and uninsurable costs to build, we need to address the human cost of the simple, everyday operation of the reactors themselves and the leaks, spills, accidents, and releases that come with each reactor. We need to do this before the names of Braidwood, Indian Point, Limerick, Shirley, and the other nearly one hundred reactor communities join the ranks of the ghost names of Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and Fukushima.


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