I’m sure the events that autumn at the Falconer nuclear power plant will eventually spawn magazine articles, documentaries, and books about the demonstrations, the unsuccessful fight to keep the peace, the violence, and the tragic and unnecessary deaths, but all I know is the little corner of what I saw during those cold and gray days, and that corner was depressing enough.
For me and thousands of others, it began on a Thursday afternoon in October when I was standing on a piece of land owned by a New England consortium of ten utilities, which was home to the only nuclear power plant in New Hampshire. Placed in Falconer, at the southernmost end of New Hampshire’s eighteen-mile shoreline, the property contained hundreds of acres with fields, marshes, and boxy concrete buildings that looked like they belonged in a 1950s science fiction film, complete with transmission lines heading out to the rest of New England, generating nearly twelve hundred megawatts of electricity and lots of controversy.
The particular piece of land on which I stood jutted out onto the wide salt marsh, and on either side of me were members of the news media, including Paula Quinn, assistant editor and reporter for the Tyler Chronicle, and one of the two best writers in this part of the state. She’s a number of years younger than me, slim, and blond, and she was wearing jeans and a black wool coat. She had a digital Canon camera slung over one arm, and her small hands held a reporter’s notebook.
With us there were also reporters from every major newspaper in New England, as well as the New York Times, and a host of television crews. We members of the alleged elite news media were looking out over a fence about fifty yards away, ringed on the top by three strands of barbed wire, with most of us shivering from the cold breeze coming off the ocean.
Paula leaned into me. “The natives are restless.”
I followed her look out to the salt marsh. “Most aren’t natives, but they’re restless enough.”
Out beyond the fence a rocky outcropping fell to the flatlands of the salt marsh, a large expanse of grassland that flooded every high tide and was furrowed by creeks and old drainage ditches. Beyond the salt marshes toward the left and a couple of miles away was a thin strip of land with buildings that marked the beaches of Tyler and Falconer. To the right and much closer, a thick stream of people was emerging from wooded areas bordering the marsh, coming out onto the grasslands.
They marched in ragged lines, chanting and yelling, waving banners and flags, a few beating drums. Some of the banners were huge, carried by a host of people, and even at this distance, I could make them out: NO NUKES. PEOPLE BEFORE PROFITS. SUN POWER, NOT NUKE POWER. Balloons on strings bounced and rippled above the demonstrators, and there were a couple of huge papier-mâché puppets. A few banners announced the name of the group supposedly in charge of the protesters: the Coalition for a Livable Future. The mass of people kept on streaming out and out, and Paula gave a nervous laugh. “You know, you look at those protesters … maybe they’ll do it this time. They might actually do it.”
I did know, and though I knew the demonstrators were mostly peaceful, there was a little gnawing sense of unease that grew at the base of my skull. I thought of the outnumbered defenders of the Alamo watching the Mexican army march before them, and tried to push the thoughts away. These people weren’t violent, but they were certainly direct and enthusiastic. The protesters wanted to do more than demonstrate, as did their predecessors when the plant was being constructed; their goal was to occupy the Falconer nuclear power plant, shut it down, and prevent further construction of another reactor unit on the property.
Near this group of news media was a temporary trailer where a couple of construction workers in blue jeans, heavy boots, sweatshirts, and hard hats stood on a wooden porch, arms folded glumly, staring out at the marchers. For the trade union workers in New England, the thought of new construction at the Falconer nuclear power plant was the proverbial shot in the arm, said arm representing hundreds of union workers who had seen most large construction projects in New England disappear. A few years ago, the owners of Falconer Station had announced plans to construct a second reactor to help power the growing demand for electricity in the region. Their plans had gone forward with as much speed as one could expect from the federal bureaucracy, and except for a handful of arguments posted by some antinuclear groups, it had looked like concrete was going to be poured soon for the first buildings of Falconer Unit 2.
Then, half a world away, an obscure power station that had been built in the days of the Soviet Union and of the same design as the Chernobyl nuclear power plant had an explosion and fire. One would think that decades after Chernobyl, some important lessons would have been learned, but such was not the case for the Kursk nuclear power station. After the explosion, fire, and initial and clumsy cover-up by the Russian government, it became front-page news for over a month as a radioactive cloud spread across Eastern Europe. In a matter of ill-considered timing, that was when the announcement came from the utility consortium that construction would begin soon for Falconer Unit 2, which was then blocked by the federal government wanting to take one more look at the unit’s licensing and design.
Hence the revitalization of the local antinuclear movement, but there was more than one movement out there, which Paula now pointed out to me.
“Look,” she said. “More people to the party.”
The first group of protesters had a festive air to go with their anger and determination, but the second group was just angry and more direct, and I could sense something change in the air when they emerged from another copse of trees. These protesters wore face masks or bandannas, some had hockey helmets on their heads, and most held wooden shields in front of them, which they banged on with wooden clubs. The shields bore a logo, a radiation trefoil symbol with a slash mark across it, bordered by the letters NFF, which stood for Nuclear Freedom Front. While the mainstay of the protesters out there were peaceful and wanted to overrun the power plant and occupy it in a nonviolent manner, these marchers were more direct and had assumed the motto of another protest organization: No Compromise in Defense of Mother Earth. Their plan was to come onto the plant site, tear down enough equipment or buildings to shut down Falconer Unit 1, and violently confront anyone—police, National Guard, or plant security—who got in their way.
Paula said, “You know, sometimes we reporters have to sniff around to look for stories. Nice for a change to have one fall in your lap … but something about this one is creeping me out.”
I offered her a smile. “Me, too.”
Looking to another collection of people, Paula folded her arms and said, “Just makes you wonder … what happens when that group meets this group.” Standing in two lines about a dozen yards away were policemen and policewomen from a variety of public safety agencies in New England, and behind them, as some sort of reserve, were groups of National Guardsmen. The police and the Guardsmen wore riot helmets with raised visors, and while all of them had on different uniforms, they also all had gas-mask bags holstered at their sides.
“Whatever happens, it won’t be pretty,” I said.
Paula said, “With that, my friend, you’re now the front-runner for understatement of the month.”
“Nice to be in the run for something.”
She eyed me with a bit of curiosity. In addition to her blond hair, Paula has fair skin, a pug nose, and ears that stick out too too much for her, but which I’ve always thought was quite cute and attractive. Some time ago we had a relationship that for a number of reasons never worked out, but we’ve remained friends ever since. The last I knew, she was still involved—if that term was still being used—with the town counsel for the town of Tyler.
Paula said, “I still don’t know why you’re here. I mean, everybody else has got hourly or daily deadlines. But you? I didn’t think your monthly column meant you’d have to be slogging around here with the rest of us ink-stained wretches.”
I shrugged. “There’s a new managing editor at Shoreline. She wants more bang for her payroll buck, so I was asked to do a feature article about the demonstration for an upcoming issue.”
“Asked, or ordered?”
“You’re now part of management,” I said. “You tell me.”
She laughed, and we both went back to looking at the advancing line of demonstrators, the larger group on the left marching in ragged bunches and lines, and the smaller group on the right marching in good, disciplined order. It was like watching a miniature Roman legion being accompanied by a larger undisciplined ally, both coming at the target with different goals and objectives.
The smaller group then halted. No raggedy lines, no bunching up. Very sharp, very disciplined. Then the group split in the middle, and a tall man came out, wearing khaki pants, an old military jacket, a black watch cap, and a red bandanna around his face. Next to him were two younger men, dressed similarly, holding a portable sound system. The man who marched forward held out an arm, producing a brief moment of cheering from the smaller group and a couple of yells and catcalls from the larger group of protesters.
“Our mystery man approaches,” Paula said, a touch of wonder in her voice. “I heard rumors that he wasn’t going to show up, that he was afraid of being arrested.”
“A leader has to lead, or he isn’t much of a leader,” I said.
One of the young men held a microphone up to the hidden face of the tall man, and he started speaking, his voice booming out. “My name is Curt Chesak, and I am the coordinator for the NFF, the Nuclear Freedom Front!”
More cheers from his followers. “I won’t talk for long, for unlike some of our so-called allies, my people and I believe in action, not talk talk talk.”
More jeers and catcalls from the larger group, echoed by cheers from the NFF crowd. Chesak held up a hand and said, “I’ve put everything on the line by being here. I know there are police and federal officials who would like to seize me, question me, and arrest me. Perhaps even declare me an enemy combatant, and make me disappear. But I’m here for the greater good, to occupy, seize, and destroy this facility of death!”
The cheers came louder. I said to Paula, “Certainly doesn’t mince any words, does he.”
She picked up her camera, snapped off a couple of shots. “Conspiracy, incitement to riot, felony vandalism … lots of law enforcement types would like to be down there, put him in cuffs.”
I pointed to the line of police officers nearby. “Then how come nobody’s moving?”
“How come you don’t remember your history, pal? Think of the charge of the Light Brigade; those cops wouldn’t stand a chance.”
I nudged her. “Nicely done, Madam Editor.”
Out on the marsh, Chesak called out, “We won’t quit until we win … and we won’t talk talk talk, but fight fight fight!”
He dropped the microphone and melted back into his crowd of fellow protesters, and I said, “He sure speaks purty, doesn’t he.”
“Yeah, he does.”
“Maybe he should run for president,” I said. “Easy enough to get your name on the ballot here.”
Paula laughed. “Speaking of presidential primaries—how’s your fair companion, Miss Annie Wynn?”
“Still trying to elect Senator Jackson Hale to the Oval Office.”
“Good for her,” she said. “What does she plan to do after the election in November?”
“Sleep for a month,” I said. “Or so she’s said.”
“Hah,” Paula said back to me. “Do you plan to keep her company then?”
I smiled at Paula. “I plan to do my very best to show that sacrifices for our great democracy don’t go unnoticed—and speaking of democracies, how’s your male friend?”
“Mark? Still the lawyer for the town of Tyler, but you know what I know. He’s thinking of running for the state senate next year. Gah, politics. Sometimes I think there should be a plague on both their houses, you know?”
I looked at the row of cops and National Guardsmen, and one of the cops looked familiar. I said to Paula, “Yeah, I know. Look, I’m off to visit the law enforcement side of the house. If anything newsworthy happens while I’m over there, you’ll let me know, won’t you?”
That got me another smile from Paula. “Since you’re from a magazine and not a direct competitor, deal. Of course, if you were the Porter Herald, I’d politely tell you to go to hell.”
I walked away from the newspeople and watched as a Boston television crew did a stand-up live broadcast, bracketing the shot so the intrepid correspondent had a line of barbed-wire fence and armed cops behind her. I moved on and went up to the line of cops, and I was eyed with suspicion, since I was wearing a bright black and yellow PRESS tag around my neck, identifying myself—at least to cops—as one of many enemies out there.
Save for one, who gave me a welcoming look as I got closer. She had on a black jumpsuit that had a dull gray and black patch on the sleeve, indicating she was a member of the Tyler Police Department, and she turned to me, and I said, “Detective Sergeant Diane Woods, so nice to see you in such a newsworthy place.”
Her light brown hair was covered by the riot helmet, but her smile and a small scar on her chin—received from a drunk in the booking room who was one of the few people in this world who ever got the drop on her—were evident, and she said, “Thought this would be something you’d be able to cover from your living room, not out in the mud and dirt.”
“Every now and then, I need to get off my butt and see things close-up.”
Diane—my oldest and dearest friend—smiled and said, “That sounds fine, but don’t get too close to this one, Lewis.”
She looked around her, and then I joined her as she walked away from the line of cops, leaving us out of earshot. She said in a low voice, “What I mean is that there’s been bunches of demonstrations here over the years, beginning when the first construction permit was issued, decades ago. We’ve never had anything like that, though.” With that last phrase, she gestured to the straight lines of the Nuclear Freedom Front.
“The previous demonstrators,” she went on, “we’ve seen them before. They come here, wave their banners, bang their drums, make a few halfhearted attempts to climb over the fence, and then they go home, telling each other how brave and committed they were. It’s like one of those dances from Japan … what do you call them?”
“Kabuki dance,” I said.
“Yeah, Kabuki. Very formal, very ritualized, everyone knows his or her roles. They played the part of the oppressed minority, getting their voices heard, and we played the role of the corporate lackey, arresting them. They went home happy that they’d made their point, and us cops went home, happy with the overtime pay. This time it’s different. The direct action guys, the ones led by that fugitive, Chesak, they’re itching for a fight, and they’ve made it very clear what they want to do. The other demonstrators—they want to occupy the site, shut it down, and plant trees and build windmills here. The direct action guys—they want to crack some skulls, burn some things, and tear down what they can.”
“Looks like they’re outnumbered,” I said.
“Oh, yeah, they are, but that doesn’t mean some people aren’t going to get hurt. And don’t forget the other folks in the mix.”
“The union guys?”
She nodded. “Oh, yeah, the union guys. For the past few years, there’s been a lack of big-ticket construction projects here in New England. Then, with the demand for more electricity, and more people thinking nuclear is a green option, the plans for Falconer Unit Two get pushed through. Suddenly, all the unions and trade organizations see thousands of good-paying jobs lasting for years coming down the highway, and they’re practically drooling in anticipation. Then … the Kursk disaster. The antinuke groups get reenergized. And if you’re a union guy, what are you going to do if you think a bunch of out-of-state tree huggers are standing between you and your jobs?”
I said, “You sound very well informed, Detective Sergeant.”
She grimaced. “I have my sources of information.”
Remembering something from a lunch conversation we had last month, as the protests started being planned, I said, “Tell me, is your Kara out there?”
She looked around, to see if anyone could overhear us; seemingly reassured that we were isolated, she said quietly, “Oh yeah, she’s out there. In an affinity group associated with the peaceful demonstrators, thank God. I didn’t want her to go out there, but no matter what I said, I lost the argument.”
“I find that unusual.”
“Why’s that?” she asked. “You find it unusual that I’d lose an argument?”
“No,” I said. “I find it unusual that your Kara, your computer whiz-girl Kara, who can make a laptop sit up and beg, who’s comfortable with all sorts of technology, who’s been in a number of successful software start-ups, I’m just surprised she’s out there.”
“Sure,” I said. “The power plant that exploded in Kursk—there’s nothing like it in the United States. Or France. Or Japan. That kind of accident can’t happen here.”
“Very observant,” she said. “You’re repeating the same arguments I was trying to use, and they didn’t work. In her head, Kara knows that technologically speaking, Kursk and Falconer don’t compare, but her heart is ruling now, Lewis. She’s seen the television footage of scared mothers standing in long lines in Poland and Ukraine, desperately getting liquid iodine treatments for their children—and pictures of scared mothers and crying children will always outweigh cool debates about risks and containment buildings.”
From both lines of demonstrators, the chanting and the beating of the drums increased, and Diane said, “I suppose I should get back to work, such as it is. What’s on the schedule for the Fourth Estate?”
“In general, I have no idea,” I said. “In particular, I’m going to attend two rallies this afternoon.”
“Lucky you,” she said. “What kind of rallies?”
“First one is a union rally, down at the co-op fishing building. Sort of an anti-antinuke rally, led by the head of the local union council, trying to drum up support for Falconer Unit Two. A guy named Joe Manzi.”
Diane nodded. “Sure. Joe Manzi. Union organizer from Massachusetts who likes the high life. What’s the other rally?”
“That one takes place a couple of hours later, at a campground in Falconer being used for the antinukers as a staging area, featuring Bronson Toles.”
Diane laughed. “Bronson. Yeah. I’m sure he’ll be walking across the marshlands at high tide. All right, my friend, take care of yourself.”
“You, too,” I said.
* * *
Back with Paula, she checked her watch. “We should get going soon if we plan to see both rallies up close.”
“Will our minder let us leave?”
Standing apart from the crowd of cops and National Guardsmen, a slim man with eyeglasses, wearing khaki slacks, a dark blue windbreaker, and a light blue hard hat emblazoned with the Falconer power plant logo was being interviewed by two camera crews. Paula and I walked up to him. He was talking calmly about the thousands of protesters nearby.
“We have full faith that local law enforcement will protect the plant and property,” the man said, smiling at both camera crews. He was Ron Shelton, spokesman for the power plant, and our escort while on plant property. There was another question tossed his way, which I didn’t make out, and he answered, “No, the operation of the power plant continues. We continue to produce enough power for one million New England homes, and we hope that the majority of the demonstrators honor their pledge to protest peacefully.”
After a couple more questions, he was able to move away gracefully and approach Paula. She said, “Ron, any chance my friend and I can slip out?”
“If security says you can, I don’t see why not. Come on, let’s find out.”
I followed Paula as she fell in with Ron, and I kept to one side as she peppered him with questions about upcoming events. We came up off the rough terrain onto a large paved area. Among the blocky buildings of concrete—including the hundred-foot-tall egg-shaped reactor containment building—other workers moved along, all sporting hard hats and wearing identification badges on their coats. On the pavement were yellow lines outlining paths to walk, and Paula and I stayed with Ron as we came out into a parking area, where there was a pair of light blue pickup trucks with spotlights mounted on the side doors. Men in dark gray jumpsuits and black boots and with semiautomatic weapons over their shoulders stood by a yellow concrete post that had a gray telephone communications box mounted on it.
Ron went up to the security officers and talked to them for a moment. One of them came back with him. “Where’s your vehicle parked?” he asked me.
“Over there,” I said, pointing. “The dark blue Ford Explorer.”
The officer said, “Sir, just get into your vehicle and follow me. We’ll slip you out of the Stony Creek Road gate.”
“Thanks,” I said, and Paula said to Ron, “Any chance for one last interview tonight, before deadline?”
The plant spokesman looked friendly but tired. “Sure. You know how we operate, Paula. Twenty-four/seven. Just call me, or have security page me. We’ll get back to you.”
We walked over to my Ford and got in. I started her up and followed the security pickup truck, which left the main parking area near the security building, a concrete cube surrounded by razor wire. Instead of going out one of the two main access roads that led to Route 1, the truck went down a bumpy dirt road that went underneath some of the huge transmission lines overhead that fed the plant’s electricity to the regional power grid.
As we drove, I switched on the heat, and Paula said, “Thanks for being my taxi driver today.”
“Not a problem,” I said, the steering wheel vibrating in my hands as we made our way down the dirt road. “Let me know tomorrow if you need another ride, if your car is still in the shop.”
“Deal, friend, deal.”
Up ahead the security truck made a left turn, and we followed. We went down a narrow dirt lane that came to a tall chain-link fence with a gate in the center. The truck pulled to the side, and one security officer jumped out, went to the gate, and, after unlocking it, waved us through.
I sped up the Explorer, and there was a bump as we went onto paved road, and in the rearview mirror I caught the officers swinging the gate shut and locking it. Up ahead were a couple of cottages and small Cape Cod houses, and the road widened a bit as we approached Route 1, the main two-lane road running north and south from Massachusetts to Maine, also known as Lafayette Road.
Paula said, “Looks like the circus is pretty widespread.”
“Sure is,” I said.
Where the road met Route 1, lines of people were walking by, some of them carrying the same kinds of signs and banners as their brethren at the salt marshes. I pulled up and waited for a break in the foot traffic, as well as the vehicle traffic. Cars and trucks moved by slowly, accompanied by a couple of National Guard Humvees.
A noise on my side window startled me. I looked over and saw a young woman standing there, smiling, gently tapping on the glass. I lowered the window. She was in her twenties, with long brown hair parted in the middle and wearing a gray sweatshirt, a long red peasant skirt, and sneakers. She handed over a leaflet to me.
“There’s a rally tonight, at the Seaside Campground,” she said. “My name is Haleigh. Will I see you there?”
I smiled. “Sure. We’ll be there.”
I raised the window, and Paula said, “That wasn’t nice.”
“What wasn’t nice?” I asked, and, finally finding a break in the traffic, I eased out onto Route 1 and started heading north.
“You told her that we’d be at the rally tonight,” she said. “I bet she thought that meant you’d be there as a supporter, and not a reporter.”
“Not my fault if she thought that,” I said.
“You getting crusty in your old age?”
“Maybe,” I said, “but I don’t feel old.”
That earned me a laugh as we went up Route 1, the traffic finally thinning out, the sun shining brightly, and the foliage on the trees on both sides of the road burning a bright red and orange. It looked nice, it looked quiet, and this would prove to be the last peaceful day in Falconer for some time to come.
Copyright © 2011 by Brendan DuBois