Climbing the Towers – 1989 by Chris Nord

Climbing the Towers – 1989

By Chris Nord

            The fact is, we had fought PSCo to a standstill in court, by organizing in each of the six towns within the ten mile radius in  Massachusetts , to hold binding votes,  yea or nay on accepting the proposed Emergency Response  Plans (ERP’s).  All six towns voted “no”, and it was made clear to Governor Dukakis that if he wanted to run for President and have the support of the North Shore,  he better support this fundamental exercise in local democracy.  Dukakis was a stockholder in Boston Edison, and would have gladly given FEMA his signature, but we had him over a barrel, and he couldn’t to sign off without harming his political ambitions.  He withheld his signature. 

            So the NRC did what it always prefers: it crafted a paper fix.  It issued two rule changes.  First, reactors that were ready to rumble, but did not yet have approved ERP’s in place, could now fire up to  5% of full power.  Second, in license litigation where a state government attempts to disrupt the licensing process by withholding approval of ERP’s, the utility seeking the license could submit a plan for the affected state.  The last bit of the shuffle was to remove FEMA’s Region I  Director, Ed Thomas, who had rightly judged that the ERP’s for Seabrook were not workable – since we had shown that it would take seven hours to clear the 10-mile radius, and FEMA’s own “Planning Basis” stated that radiation could reach the outdoors within 30 minutes of the initiation of a radiological emergency.  In a move reminiscent of the current replacement of U.S. Attorneys by Attorney General Gonzales,  the Reagan administration  replaced Thomas with someone who would certify the plans, regardless of whether they could actually work, and get the nuke running.

            Early in 1989, we decided to climb the transmission towers before Low Power Test, and get some banners up in a final public plea for sanity.  We needed special equipment to accomplish the task – since the towers have no ladders.  A Concord angel provided funding for logistics.  An extraordinarily gifted engineer/builder from Ipswich named Lee Wheeler took on the task of designing and fabricating our climbing gear.  He also erected a forty-foot mock tower in his front yard, for climbers to hone their technique.  By early spring we were ready.  Then we got snagged.

            Personally, it was a relief when on the day of our action, Seabrook Police Chief Cronin drove into the rest area parking lot just south of the Seabrook exit – our staging area.  At that moment I could barely walk; I had slipped on the ice at my shop that morning and my knee had gone into spasm,  I was leaning on my cane, and my whole group’s plan for our climb was already in trouble.  We were trying to salvage a game plan, and as we milled around waiting for all the climbers and their support to show, up drives the Chief to do everyone a favor.  Paul went to one side of the cruiser, and I went to the other. The Chief obligingly opened both windows, obviously enjoying the surprise he has just provoked.  After all, we had taken precautions to plan this particular action with a good deal of secrecy, because we needed enough time unimpeded by law enforcement to get our climbers off the ground.  Our precautions had clearly fallen short 

            “Got something planned for today?” he asks rhetorically, just a hint of a smile.  Paul answered: “Yea….We were thinkin’ about it,” sounding non-committal – almost like a question.  Chief Cronin says, in a most hospitable, almost collegial tone, “ Well, I thought I’d stop by to let you know we’ll be waiting for you, whenever you want to come up.”  We both thanked him, and Paul asked the obvious question:  “But Chief, how did you know?”  Chief Cronin smiled a bit more at that, and said very softly:  “Oh, we have our ways…”.  He sealed his windows and drove off.  We didn’t know if he knew what exactly we had planned, but he had just saved us from getting our gear confiscated.   

            All six groups of climbers and support drove south to my shop in Newburyport, an unheated two-car garage.  We got in there, closed the doors and circled up.  Dwight Graves, one of the Warner climbers, passed a leather pouch around the circle, inviting each one of us to take one stone from the pouch and hang on to it.  When everyone had one, we held them up; they were polished cuts from the same rock.  Dwight suggested that from that huddle forward, we could only discuss planning for the action with someone else carrying a matching stone – no exceptions, not even for a spouse or best friend.  Further, planning could only be carried on in person – no phone calls.  All  agreed.

            We burned some gasoline to get the second attempt set.  In the intervening six weeks, I had arthroscopic surgery on my right knee, with three weeks post-op to get back in shape to climb.  It was now June.  My climbing partner was Harry Leno, for many years the Animal Control Officer for the town of Ipswich.  So Harry was actually a member of the Ipswich Police.  This fact did not stop Harry from risking arrest for his principles.  Harry was, and still is, a spearhead of the citizen-run needle exchange program in Boston.  He knows when to hightail it.  We had a driver, and we each had friends manning the folding ladders specially built and fitted to get us to the first hook-in ten feet up.

            The morning of the action, there was no collective staging area.  Climbing groups simply planned to arrive at their chosen towers at an agreed time, so that everyone could get on their towers before the police were alerted.  Because my group had chosen the towers closest to North Gate on Route 1, we needed a distraction for the gatehouse security.  Billy Donovan volunteered.  He drove his pickup ahead of our windowless van.  He turned into the North Gate entrance, and our van drove just north, making a sudden stop  right on Route 1, in front of the towers.  Billy made conversation with the female security guard until she heard the clanging sound of metal on metal, somewhere close by. That was Billy’s signal to scram…..(to be continued)

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