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Sam Lovejoy's Not So Private Nuclear War

Sam Lovejoy's Not So Private Nuclear War image Sam Lovejoy's Not So Private Nuclear War image
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On Washington's Birthday, at one in the morning, Sam Lovejoy slipped his feet into heavy socks, plastic bags and tennis shoes. Then he walked over icy country roads to the site of a 500-foot weather tower, four miles from his Montague, Massachussets farm commune.

The tower belonged to Northeast Utilities. It was checking weather conditions as a preliminary to construction of a 1250-megawatt nuclear power plant, the biggest of its kind ever proposed.

Lovejoy, 27, brought with him a pipe wrench and a wrecking bar. Working under a new moon, he removed three bolts at the base of the tower and began loosening the supporting turnbuckles at the tower's south side. When the guy wire from the third turnbuckle snapped loose, the tower caved in on itself, creating a sound Lovejoy later described as "the twang of a 500-foot guitar string."

Lovejoy next ran over a snowmobile path to the Turner Falls Road, and flagged down a patrol car. He asked the two officers for a ride to the station, explaining he "wanted to talk to the Chief about the tower."

The Chief was asleep when Lovejoy arrived, so he asked if desk sergeant Donald Cade knew the tower lights were out. Cade radioed the two officers who had just dropped Lovejoy off to go check.

A half-hour later an officer's voice blasted over the walkie-talkie, "My God, a plane musta hit the tower."

Lovejoy laughed, suggesting the officers look for the plane while he called his lawyer.

Two hours later, Lovejoy handed Sergeant Cade a 750 word typewritten statement protesting the dangers of nuclear power. Cade put Lovejoy under arrest.

The 50 active commercial nuclear power plants in this country all sit in rural or semi-rural areas. Many people are wary of possible radiation poisoning and ecological damage, but power companies knew that small towns are often susceptible to the high tax and employment benefits nuclear construction can bring.

For many reasons, Montague, Massachusetts must have seemed an ideal spot for a nuclear power plant. A conservative town of 8,500 sitting on the Connecticut River, some 90 miles west of Boston, Montague has had high taxes and crippling unemployment for as long as anybody can remember.

So when Northeast Utilities (NU) announced last December that Montague would be the site of a $1.35-billion (soon uprated to $1.52 billion) twin nuclear power plant, most townspeople were ecstatic.

But not all of them. Montague happens to sit 12 miles north of Amherst, a booming college town. Since the late sixties, students, non-students and ex-students have been flooding the surrounding area, many of them converting old New England farms into communes.

Lovejoy's farm was one of the first, formed in 1968 following a split in Liberation News Service. Marshall Bloom, founder and former Amherst student, along with his half of the LNS collective, settled on a 63-acre Montague farm.

There the focus gradually shifted from urban politics to organic farming. Lovejoy, who grew up on a farm and was a classmate of David Eisenhower's at Amherst, drifted up to the farm about 1970.

When the nuclear power plant came to town, the late sixties karma came back in spades. A group called Nuclear Objectors for a Pure Environment (NOPE) materialized, pamphlets were circulated, pranks were played on the town fathers, and freaks throughout the area began to re-mobilize.

Then Lovejoy tipped over the tower. Rural Franklin County was incensed, to say the least. Vocal opposition had been tolerable, but destruction of property was out of the question. The Greenfield Recorder ran its first frontpage editorial in years, comparing Lovejoy to Hitler, John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald and Sirhan Sirhan.

What really blew area minds was that Lovejoy had claimed responsibility for toppling the tower, and then proceeded to plead "absolutely not guilty" at his arraignment for "willful and malicious destruction of personal property," a five-year felony. To top that, he was allowed to walk out without bail when his lawyer proved that Lovejoy had every intention of standing trial, and that bail could not be used for punitive purposes. The Montague police chief summed up area sentiment when he yelled that Lovejoy had destroyed all that property and then walked out free "like a goddamned football hero."

The toppling of the tower gave a giant shot in the arm to the anti-nuke movement, and suddenly activists began crawling out of the woodwork to fight the plant.

In May, pro-nuke forces in Montague staged a referendum to prove once and for all that the town wanted it. They predicted a 10 or 20 to 1 majority for the plant, but when the vote came in at 2,280 to 770 - less than 3:1 - it was considered a major upset. About the same time, town meetings in three bordering towns registered overwhelming opposition to the plant.

In the summer a new area-wide organization sprouted up calling itself the Alternate Energy Coalition (AEC). For its first project, the AEC gathered nearly 4,000 signatures to put two nuke questions on the fall ballot in the state Senate District. The first question would call for a vote on the Montague plants, the second on the possibility of "shutting down and dismantling" two operating nuclear plants, one in Rowe, Massachusetts and the other in Vernon, Vermont, just over the state line. It would be the first time in American history voters would be asked to judge whether or not existing plants should be shut down.

In September, all eyes again turned to Franklin County superior court. Lovejoy decided to defend himself, and spent the summer studying law like a madman. Judge Kent P. Smith was genuinely freaked that Lovejoy was defending himself on such a serious charge. He practically begged Lovejoy to take on a lawyer. Lovejoy refused, but did agree to use an atlorney when it came time to put himself on the stand. (Under Massachusetts procedure, if you defend yourself and then take the stand, you have to ask yourself questions and then answer them.)

The actual trial began on September 17, Constitution Day, and a new moon. As soon as a jury was seated (9 women and 5 men, average age of 50), everybody - judge, jury, defendant, court officers, reporters and 125 spectators - piled into cars and a bus and went to the site of the tower. For about two hours everybody gawked under sunny skies at the 500-foot structure. NU had brought in a replacement tower within two weeks after Lovejoy knocked over the first one. This time, though, they put up eight-foot cyclone fences, barbed wire and quarter-inch steel sheathing for the turn-buckles. In addition, each turnbuckle station was now equipped with an underground detectionalarm system.

The beautiful warm day made the trip seem more like a company outing than a trial, but a note of discord was entered at the end when Lovejoy tried to describe the ecology of the Montague Plains, where the tower stood. The Plains are a sandy stretch of barren pine that serve as a natural aquifer, or water filter, for the Connecticut River. A geological study showed that fully V of the Connecticut's water filters through the Plains, and one basic reason opponents had for fighting the nuke was that it would destroy the Plains, and thus the River.

Lovejoy's soliloquoy rapidly ended when the prosecutor's objection was sustained.

Back in court, the Commonwealth presented an excruciatingly dull case. With six witnesses, Assistant District Attorney John Murphey proved that the tower had been toppled, that Lovejoy did it, and that it cost $42,500.

Then it was Lovejoy's turn. Lovejoy had decided to attack the indictment on the question of maliciousness, and to also posit the idea that what he did not only wasn't malicious, it wasn't even illegal.

He argued basically that nuclear power was so dangerous, such a lethal threat to the health, safety and well-being of the community, that the toppling of the tower was not only his right, but his duty.

But that proved a lot easier said to the press than to the jury. To prove his case, Lovejoy first summoned Dr. John Gofman, a world-renowned nuclear physicist, a discoverer of Uranium 233, a medical doctor, and an ardent foe of nuclear power plants. Gofman is co-authoT of Poisoned Power, a bitter attack on the nuke industry.

The prosecutor objected to Gofman's testimony and Judge Smith asked the jury to leave. Smith asked Lovejoy to prove the relevance of the physicist's testimony. Lovejoy said he needed to prove the dangers of nuclear power, both to Ilústrate his state of mind at the time of the towertoppling, and to lend credibility to his claims of the dangers of nuclear power.

Smith ultimately gave a unique and somewhat bizarre ruling. Gofman could testify to the court record, but not the jury. Lovejoy had wanted a public forum on nukes, and now he got it - only the jury was excluded.

Gofman testified that he had worked on the Manhattan project and with the founders of the Atomic Energy Commission. That AEC's lax standards on radiation were a "license to commit murder." As many as 32,000 additional cases of cancer, leukemia and birth defects would result if nuclear development kept up under such regulations.

A plant melt-down, Gofman continued, could kill hundreds of thousands of people and do inestimable property damage. A land-area the size of Pennsylvania would be made uninhabitable for centuries. The atomic industry, Gofman said, claimed chances of a melt-down - the euphemism for a run-away reaction at a nuclear plant - were miniscule. But, he said, that begged the question:

"I find when we 're talking about a mass of 100 tons of material melting 5,000° Farenheit with water around there, with hydrogen being generated, burning explosively, melting through concrete into soil, when somebody tells me that 'we're sure it isn't going to go far away' I look at them as a chemist and I say I've heard various forms of insanity, but hardly this form.

"I don't really know whether the chance is 1 in 10, or 1 in 100, or 1 in 10,000 as to whether 20% of the radioactivity will get 30 miles away. I just ask myself in view of the fact that we have so much easier ways to generate energy needs, why do it this way?"

The brunt of Gofman's attack centered on plutonium, on which he did much pioneer research. Gofman told the court that in the AEC's phrase, plutonium is "the most fiendishly toxic substance ever known." Three tablespoons, he said, could cause 9 billion human cancer cases.

Each nuke creates thousands of pounds of waste plutonium, and as yet there is no means of storing it.

According to Gofman, waste plutonium, which has a half-life of more than 24,000 years, must be guarded "99.9999% perfectly in peace and war, against human error and human malice, guerilla activities, psychotics, malfunction of equipment ... Do you believe there's anything you'd like to guarantee will be done 99.9999% perfectly for 100,000 years?"

Gofman capped his testimony with an indictment of the Atomic Energy Commission. "Some awfully big interests invested in uranium and the future of atomic power," he said, "and unfortunately their view is 'we've got to recover our investment, no matter what the cost to the public.' " He aceused the AEC and the nuke industry of acting in conspiracy to keep the true facts of nuclear dangers from the public.

Gofman's testimony was overwhelming, and received wide media coverage throughout the area. One columnist for the Greenfield Recorder later wrote that Gofman's speech had caused him to rethink his stand on nuclear  power.

The next day, Lovejoy brought on radical historian Howard Zinn, an expert on civil disobedience and a veteran of numerous anti-war and anti-draft cases, among them that of the Camden 28. Again Smith cleared the jury box.

Zinn told the court that the tower-toppling was in the best tradition of Gandhi, Thoreau and the abolitionists.

When Zinn finished, Lovejoy took the stand himself. This time, the jury was allowed to stay. Lovejoy explained his mind was blown on the nuke issue during a quick trip to Seattle to retrieve his girlfriend. There he read in local papers about a live leak of radioactive wastes from a storage tank in Hanford, in eastern Washington. More than 100,000 gallons had escaped from holding tanks and leaked into the ground. The accident was covered up until investigative reporters broke the story.

When the facts became public, the AEC was ready. They claimed a computer print-out showed the liquid wouldn't hit the Columbia River for 800years. Until then, everything was groovy.

That, said Lovejoy, was too much. For the next six months he read everything he could about nuclear power, finally settling on Gofman and Tamplin's Poisoned Power as the basic bible. The more he read the more he was sure nuclear plants were "the most horrendous development our community has ever faced."

And the more he looked into legal recourse, the more it seemed the AEC was a "kangaroo court." The AEC turned down licensing applications in only the most extreme cases - like building on the San Andreas fault - and had only levied two malpractice fines despite thousands of serious "abnormal occurrences." Applying to the AEC, both promoter and regulator of nuclear power, for recourse against a nuke, Lovejoy said, was like applying for justice against a thief when the judge and jury are his complices.

So he had to act. Returning to Montague, he saw the tower for the first time, and "knew it would have to go down."

Lovejoy testified for six hours on his life and conversion to sabotage. The last hour was an extremely dramatic narrative of his final decision to topple the tower, how he acted not out of malice, but "because I had fallen in love with a little four-year-old girl named Sequoyah (a commune resident). "I asked myself, who am I to do this thing, to be a judge on such a question. But then I 

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Sequoyah and all the children, and their children's children yet unborn, depend on us, they are innocents. They depend on us not to desecrate the environment, trees and rivers, all in the name of gross profits. I knew I had to do it for Sequoyah.

thought about this little girl, who couldn't defend herself, and I knew I had to act."

After the trial a number of jurors said they were deeply moved by Lovejoy's testimony. A poll indicated a hung jury, probably 8-4 or 9,3 in Lovejoy's favor.

But it never got to them. Judge Smith seemed more interested in the wording of the indictment. It read "...destruction of personal property." Under Massachusetts law, destroying personal property is a five-year felony; destroying real property is a six-month misdemeanor.

From the start Smith expressed doubt that the tower could pass as personal property. When two Montague tax officials testified the tower had been assessed as real property, everybody knew it was all over.

On the afternoon of the trial's seventh day, Smith convened court without the jury and announced his decision. He was going to void the charges because he "could not in good conscience ask a jury to deliberate on an indictment with a hole in it."

Lovejoy practically begged him not to do it. An acquittal on a technicality was worth far less than an acquittal by the jury. He had meant the trial to be a forum on nuclear power, and he wanted the verdict on that. Smith replied with a lecture on the law, capped with the statement, "justice injustice is justice is justice."

The day after Lovejoy was acquitted, Northeast Utilities announced the Montague plant was being postponed for at least a year. The reason: money.

NU supplies most of New England with electricity and is one of America 's most prosperous Utilities. But recently its stock has fallen drastically and its capital reserves have dwindled. In August NU President Lelan Sillin admitted "the company must raise $1 billion to build the Montague plant, and when $1 billion is needed, and when interest rates are as high as they are, we have to look seriously at the situation."

NU's problem is not unique. At least 30 nukes have been postponed or cancelled in the last year for lack of capital. The postponements mean that the costs of building will soar even higher. The estimated cost of the Montague plant jumped $170,000,000 in six months.

But money isn't the only thing that might kill the Montague project. The massive coverage of Lovejoy's trial kept the nuke issue on front pages in the Connecticut Valley for an entire week.

Soon thereafter anti-nuke organizers took to the streets to canvass for the November 5 vote. In general, predictions were that the ballot proposal against the Montague plant would lose substantially, and the one calling for dismantling the two plants would be crushed.

But the election day brought a big surprise. The Montague question lost, but by the slim score of 52.5% to 48.5%. Roughly 23,000 of the district's 48,500 voters registered opposition to the project.

In addition, within Montague itself, the anti-nuke forces picked up 320 votes, cutting the margin from 3:1 to less than 2:1, and increasing their strength by 40%.

The biggest surprise, however, came on the dismantliug proposition. The two nukes are worth, after all, about $I billion. It's one thing to oppose construction of new plants; it's quite another to tear existing ones down. Nobody expected more than a 15% yes vote, 20% at the outside.

But 15,313 voters asked that the plants be shut down, 33% of the vote. The town of Wendell voted 98-68 to cart the plants away, becoming the first town in American history to ask such a thing. What the vote meant was essentially that in less than a year's organizing - and with at least two years to go before construction is supposed to start - the anti-nuke movement had already carried nearly half the district. The only other area with a history of voting on a nuclear power plant is Eugene, Oregon. In November, 1968, the town gave a 78% yes vote to a proposed nuclear power plant there. Eighteen months later, the same town voted 52%-48% to delay the project.

Given that sort of indicator, plus the gains in Montague, it seems likely that a substantial majority of the district will be opposed to the Montague project before the first bulldozer moves onto the Plains.

Should NU have money for the project, and should they persist in wanting to build the plant, the toppling of the Montague tower may someday be remembered as a friendly warning.