Reflecting on Maine’s Nuclear History

With Japan still battling radioactive dangers at the badly damaged Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant as a result of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, it’s a little disheartening to arrive just over two weeks later at the 32nd anniversary of this country’s own Three Mile Island incident.

Three Mile Island, off Harrisburg, PA, taken 6/10/10. Deactivated Unit 2 is on the left. (Source: Wikipedia entry for Three Mile Island; public domain image.)

On March 28, 1979, workers failed to notice a valve had remained stuck in the open position after an unexpected shutdown. As a result, coolant drained out of the system. Anyone following Japan’s crisis knows that is B-A-D. The core overheated and a partial meltdown ensued. While no immediate deaths or accidents followed, some research in the years following the accident indicated an increase in cancer and infant mortality rates in downwind areas.

As a result of the accident, within days the Nuclear Regulatory Commission had ordered five other power plants shut down–including Maine Yankee in Wiscasset. But by May, Maine’s then-Governor Brennan announced Maine Yankee could re-open, setting off a storm of protests.

Protesters with Governor Brennan, May 25, 1979
Maine Yankee pamphlet, ca. 1967

At that point, Maine Yankee had only been in operation for seven years. While its origins date to the formation of the Maine Yankee Atomic Power Company in 1966, construction didn’t start on Wiscasset’s Bailey Peninsula until 1968, and commercial operations finally got underway in 1972.

A 1967 “FACTS” pamphlet lists that the Bailey Peninsula site–790 acres four miles south of the village–was preferred over others for the following reasons:

1. Nearness to electrical load center of Maine
2. Proximity to ocean, rail and highway routes
3. Excellent foundation conditions (bedrock)
4. Proximity of transmission lines
5. Favorable geologic, hydrologic, seismologic and meteorological characteristics
6. Adequate supply of fresh water
7. Sufficient land area

The Sheepscot River is visible in the foreground of the Maine Yankee Nuclear Power Plant in Wiscasset on September 22, 1980. This photograph was taken a day before the first referendum vote to close the plant.

None of those desirable features stopped protests while the plant was in the planning or construction stages, and there were three referendums in the 1980s after Maine Yankee continued operations following the brief 1979 shutdown.

Nuclear referendum petitions, Augusta, 1980

The first referendum, in 1980, was a direct result of Three Mile Island, and though it failed by 70,000 votes, it drew nationwide publicity, such as this short feature in Time Magazine.

Two more referendums, in 1982 and 1987, failed to receive enough votes to shutter the facility, even though big names came to town to speak on behalf of the Maine Nuclear Referendum Committee, including Ralph Nader and actor Ed Asner.

Actor Ed Asner, Portland, 1982

The plant finally closed in 1996 after the Nuclear Regulatory Commission found safety problems too costly to repair. A $500 million decommissioning process took place between 1997 and 2005.

That’s hardly the end of the power plant’s history, however. As explained on Maine Yankee’s website, the spent nuclear fuel rods are still there, waiting for the federal government to figure out what to do with them.

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