student in media lab

Chapter 7: Student Activism

* Meltdown at Montague, 1978
* Working Paper: Is the Experiment Over? 1980
* Rediscovering the Roots of the Hampshire Tree, 1983

[This student project, a booklet with accompanying videotape, was produced in response to a proposed nuclear reactor facility in Montague, and was widely circulated in the local area. Northeast Utilities ultimately decided not to build the plant.]

Meltdown at Montague: a citizens' guide to the consequences of an accident at a nuclear reactor in Franklin County, Mass.
Amherst, Mass.: Environmental Studies and Public Policy Group, Hampshire College, 1978. Click here to download a pdf of the entire report.

Nuclear power plants do not blow up like atomic bombs: they melt down. All scientists agree that not only can a meltdown occur, but that a non-nuclear explosion and subsequent release of radiation into the atmosphere can follow. What the scientists do not agree on, even though they all have access to the same information, is the probability, the odds, the chances of a meltdown followed by a catastrophic release of radiation...

Northeast Utilities has announced plans to build two of the biggest nuclear boiling water reactors to date in the small, rural town of Montague, Massachusetts. If one of these plants were to have a serious accident, with large amounts of radiation released to the air, would you know what to do, how to protect yourself and your family against the colorless, odorless, destructive radioactivity? What can go wrong in these reactors, how could such an accident happen? What would be the effect of a large release of radiation in Franklin County? Would we be able to drink the water or eat the food from our fertile Connecticut River Valley? How long would the immediate and long-term effects last on the human, animal, and plant populations, on the surface and ground water supplies? What plans have been made for evacuation of the area, and who is responsible for what?

The purpose of this book is to answer these questions, to tell you what you need to know. Background material was collected and research carried out by faculty and student members of Hampshire College's Environmental Studies and Public Policy group, during the 1975-76 school year. They drew upon an expanding body of nuclear information, including government and private studies, technical and popular books, and first-hand information collected themselves in interviews around the county.

Reading this book will not only make you a more informed citizen, but it could aid substantially to your healthy survival following a major release of energy.

This report describes a possible scenario for a serious accident at the nuclear power plant proposed for Montague, Massachusetts. The scenario is, of course, fictional, and it hardly needs to be pointed out that no accident of this magnitude has yet occurred at a nuclear power plant. It should be emphasized that the probability if such a serious accident occurring is very small, although there remains considerable controversy over just what "small" means in a quantitative sense. To this date the best scientific judgment one can make is that this probability cannot be estimated with any degree of precision by currently available methods. (p.6-7)

We believe that the basic issues of nuclear power involve value judgments, and that decisions must be made by as broad a spectrum of citizens as possible. If this is to occur, people must become aware of the risks and benefits of nuclear power and make their own judgments about whether the benefits outweigh the risks. To put the question as bluntly as possible, society is balancing the potential for plentiful energy against the potential for accidents which could cause death and destruction on a scale never before realized outside of war. We are deciding whether a few dollars per month off our electric bills are worth a legacy of lethal radioactive wastes and decommissioned power plants which will require the careful attention of the next 5,000 generations of human beings. (p.8)

Let us take a close-up look at the inner workings of a boiling water reactor, like the ones planned for Montague. We will construct a plausible scenario, a series of events leading to a loss of cooling accident (LOCA), and a subsequent meltdown and release of radioactivity. Some of the events we describe are not only possible but many of them have actually happened in several nuclear plants.

For Montague, we begin our scenario with a sizeable failure of power lines in the area...if several power lines fall over a sizeable area, the capacity of the grid to compensate can become overtaxed. When this happens, a power plant may suddenly find itself attempting to feed power into an open circuit. The only way the plant can respond to such a sudden drop in load demand is to disconnect itself from the grid and shut down its turbine generator. (p. 22-23)

Turbine shutdowns, or "trips," are relatively common events, and the reactor and its primary coolant circulation system are conservatively designed to withstand these quick pressure surges, or "transients," without damage. In a normal turbine trip there is no need for the reactor itself to be shut down...It is not possible, however, to predict in advance how large a surge will occur when the turbine bypass valve is shut...Occasionally a pressure surge will be large enough so that a new set of safety devices must be called upon to prevent damage to the reactor core. This "second line of defense" involves isolating the reactor building from the external world and rapidly shutting down the reactor by driving in the control rods. This procedure is called "scram". (p.23)

All of these actions--the closing of the turbine bypass valve, the closing of the reactor isolation valve, and the slamming in of the control rods--must occur in less than three seconds. The violent shocks to the reactor vessel, core and primary coolant system piping cannot be accurately predicted as to intensity, timing or location. (p.25)

A particular scram, with its associated vibrations, shocks and pressure surges, could overstress the primary coolant system and cause a pipe to rupture at the site of a fatigue crack which had escaped detection...Inside the primary coolant system of a large boiling water reactor are some 400 to 500 tons of water and steam at an average temperature of about 500 degrees F and a pressure of about 1,000 psi, that is, about 70 times atmospheric pressure. When a pipe breaks in this system the water and steam are forced out at incredible speeds; anywhere from 25 to 40 tons of water and steam will spew out of the break every second until the reactor vessel is nearly empty and the internal pressure is reduced.

The expulsion (usually called the "blowdown") of so much water at so high a pressure in so short a time is an unimaginably violent event. It has all the aspects of a massive explosion, and inside the reactor a potentially destructive shock wave is created. This shock wave could lead to bending and breaking of fuel rods and even more serious structural damage to the core and its crucial safety systems...In this scenario for Montague we assume that structural damage and fuel rod swelling does occur and that some important coolant channels are blocked in the hottest regions of the core, near the center...

The Emergency Core Cooling System (ECCS) is designed to cool the core in the event of a loss of coolant through a break in a pipe. The first phase of emergency core cooling begins as the blowdown nears completion. A system of nozzles above the core sprays water in among the fuel assemblies--provided the system has not been damaged in the blowdown. The purpose of the spray is to keep the temperatures of the fuel rods from rising above 2,300 degrees F: the point at which the zirconium covering on the fuel begins to react chemically with water to form zirconium oxide and hydrogen gas and to release more heat. Temperatures at hot spots become hotter still. At this point the chemical reactions and the radioactive decay generate heat faster than the water spray can remove it. Since this is happening above the midpoint of the core, there is considerable delay before the low pressure coolant injection system can reflood the core up to this level. By the time this occurs the top portion of the core could be beyond control and the reflood water would then only add fuel to the zirconium-water "fire". (p.27-29)

If these events occur in the way we have described, then the core will reach the stage at which the heating is out of control about one minute after the initial turbine trip. The operators in the control room may be able to determine that the core is in fact uncoolable, but they may also be getting confusing or conflicting instrument readings...There would be no doubt, however, about what had happened after 20 minutes. By this time a sizeable portion of the core will have melted--starting with the top center region and working outward and downward. As temperatures continue to rise in the molten region, more fuel rods swell and buckle and the molten core material may form a pool on top of this pile of rubble...As the core continues to melt and the pool of molten uranium, zirconium and steel grows in size, it will reach a point at which it is too heavy for the rubble pile that is holding it up. At this point, the molten metal will most probably fall into a pool of unvaporized water which remains in the bottom of the reactor vessel...The effect of dropping a large glob of molten metal into a pool of relatively cool water is very unpredictable, but one possible outcome could be an instantaneous, violent steam explosion...if the molten core collapses suddenly through the lower grid plate into the water in the bottom of the pressure vessel, and if there is a high degree of fragmentation of the molten metal, then the 650,000 lb. vessel head could be blown at least 200 feet into the air.

Of course, well below 200 feet the vessel head will encounter the roof of the containment building...The vessel head will smash right through the roof and open the interior of the reactor building to the world outside. The explosion will be heard and felt in all of the surrounding communities, especially in Greenfield, Turners Falls, Millers Falls, and Erving. It will most probably be the first moment at which the public is aware that anything is wrong at the Montague Nuclear Power Station. The explosion could occur as early as forty minutes after the turbine trip, but it could also be delayed much longer, depending on the actual progress of the meltdown.

Residents of Montague, looking out to check on the source of the expolsion, will see a dense cloud of hot steam and possibly some of the radioactive materials. Everything from six-inch chucks to tiny aerosols, 1 micron or less in diameter, will be accompanied into the air by several radioactive gases, in particular krypton, xenon and iodine. The radioactivity of these materials now becomes a danger to the life or health of any living organism with which it comes in contact. (p.30-31)

The plume of the radioactive steam will rise into the prevailing wind and begin to move away from the plant, spreading over the countryside...The plume is an unstable and erratic phenomenon. We cannot predict precisely what its behavior, or its effect, will be. However, by basing our scenario on data from other plumes, and by fitting in weather and other data from Montague, we can make an educated guess.(p.32)

Radiation from the expanding plume at Montague will reach the population in several ways. First, people in its path will be directly immersed the radioactive isotopes that make up the cloud. During this exposure the principal damage will be done by the gamma rays, since alpha and beta rays are stopped by the skin...Exposure to all this radioactivity will last as long as it takes the cloud to pass, and probably be extremely intense near the plant, less so as it moves downwind.

Second, the radioactive particles that are deposited on the ground will remain for years, continuously giving off radiation to the environment. The intensity of this radiation decreases with time as the radioactive mateials decay or wash away, or migrate into the soil. Nonetheless, this severe dose of radioactivity will cause substantial amounts of land to be unfit for human habitation for decades.

If people are allowed back onto the contaminated land before the particles decay or wash away, they will be exposed to and will breathe stirred-up particles. If people eat foods which have absorbed radioactivity at some point along the food chain, this will further increase their dose of radiation. In either case, the radioactive particles enter the body and remain for years either in the organ of entry (the lungs or intestine) or in other organs to which they are transported by the blood and lymph systems. Here, lodged in delicate tissues, the alpha and beta particles can do as much damage as the gamma rays, or even more. (p.35-36)

The scenario we have outlined in this guide is only one of a number we might have chosen, and it is by no means the worst imaginable for Montague or any other reactor. We have hypothesized an accident that results in a radioactive plume blowing toward the east, over areas less heavily populated than if it goes south over Amherst, Holyoke, Springfield, and Hartford. We have assumed a sunny day, which means that the atmosphere is somewhat stable. This causes the radioactivity to be mixed with a much larger volume of air, reducing its intensity relative to that which occurs under a temperature inversion or rainstorm. Inversions are common at night in New England, so a nightime accident leads to more serious radiation exposures as well as to a reduced ability to warn and evacuate the public.

We have hypothesized a spring accident, before crops have been planted. A late summer or early fall accident means the destruction of crops about to be harvested, thus compounding the already serious economic loss.

All these possibilities are just as likely as the one we have chosen. But from the standpoint of a private citizen living within 50 miles of a nuclear plant, all the possibilities have a great deal in common. In any reactor accident involving large releases of radioactivity to the atmosphere, the main concerns of citizens must be safe, rapid evacuation, coupled with expected loss of personal property, real estate, jobs, and food, as well as long term effects on the health of one's family and short, one's total life style...

Well, what can you and your community do? the following is a list of actions which will result in the saving of many lives, should an accident occur:

1. Find out if your community has an evacuation plan and make this plan a topic for public discussion and evaluation. Our study of such plans reveals glaring weaknesses and highly questionable assumptions about the effectiveness of communications systems, as well as the speed with which any evacuation can be executed.
2. Find out if the hospitals in your area have adequate facilities, drugs and trained personnel...
3. Do your police and fire departments know exactly what to do in a radioactive emergency?...
4. Find out if sodium iodide pills are available, and if not, demand that they be made available to the public...

As you go about asking questions and attempting to prepare yourself and your family as well as possible, you can expect to be reassured by many officials that everything is under control and that there are no serious problems with the evacuation and decontamination plans. Our own investigations have shown, however, that these reassurances must be taken with with heavy grains of salt. We cannot over-emphasize how important it is that as many citizens as possible dig into these issues, and let their community leaders and public safety departments know that they are concerned and that they need correct detailed information. This could take the form of an emergency plan to be tacked up alongside the first aid chart in home medicine cabinets.

There is only one thing which is certain about improbable events. Sooner or later they happen. (p.62-64)

A Working Paper for the "Is the Experiment Over" Movement for Spring, 1980
David Early. Click here to download a pdf of the full working paper.

"Is the Experiment Over?" has emerged as a very vital movement at Hampshire. The movement has, however, grown fairly quickly, and it seems unclear at this time exactly what it is that the movement is striving for. It is therefore important that we set some goals for the movement, especially in light of the upcoming Community Colloquy...

A. History of "Is the Experiment Over?"
As Chairperson of Community Council, it has been one of my goals to increase community awareness of and participation in Hampshire governance. By late October of last semester, however, it was becoming clear that the Council and I were not achieving this goal. Members of the community remained ignorant of the decisions, powers and perhaps even the existence of Community Council. It began to seem to me as though Community Council, and Hampshire governance in general, were destined to remain obscure and unimportant.

"Is the Experiment Over?" was initiated at a meeting of the Executive Council of Community Council at which I voiced my pessimism about the situation. Other members of the Council were feeling the same things, and we decided that it was about time we took some action. Thus we decided to make the next Community Council meeting an open meeting in the East Lecture Hall; this was the first large "Is the Experiment Over?" meeting.

Since that meeting, we have had one other large meeting, and five radials have begun to get together around various issues. Community Council continues to meet to conduct normal business, but the task of generating interest in the Hampshire community has shifted to the radials and the entire "Is the Experiment Over?" movement.

B. Problems Facing the Hampshire Community
As the brief history makes clear, "Is the Experiment Over?" was begun mostly to fight the community's disinterest in governance at Hampshire. However, this disinterest is only one symptom of a major problem: Hampshire's lack of community. I think it is safe to say that all members of "Is the Experiment Over?" are hoping to generate a greater sense of community at Hampshire. But each of us also sees other problems here. Some people say that these other problems are components of the single problem of lack of community, while others contend that the other problems are the actual causes of the lack of community. Either way, we should examine each individual problem separately.

1. Disinterest in governance...
2. Academic isolation...
3. Social isolation...
4. Isms...
5. Split between students and faculty/staff...

C. Concrete actions for Spring, 1980.
The problems I have outlined are too nebulous to attempt to remedy directly. There isn't really any way that we can attempt to simply "end social isolation" or "cause an interest in governance." In order to get around this problem, I have gone through a process called Goals Analysis...Doing this has given me the following list of thirteen changes which I think we need to make at Hampshire. They are fairly concrete, and I think that we can implement them this semester...

1. Improve our attitude toward "the Community"...We must begin to include all parts of the Hampshire community in our planning. This means no more talk of "student control"; we need community cooperation instead...
2. Improve the administration's attitude towards community groups... We must let the administration know how much better Hampshire could run if administration power were decentralized and if people were referred to community organizations when they need assistance...
3. Improve communication...communication should become more two-way and discussion oriented; perhaps we can develop questionnaires, hall and mod representatives and/or discussion groups. We especially need to improve communication with faculty and staff, who do not seem to feel involved or invited right now.
4. Reach out to other groups on campus...
5. Utilize and encourage "Common Ground"...
6. Institute a community work program...A work program requiring every one at Hampshire to work about ten hours a week for the community would cut the costs of attending Hampshire, make the college run more efficiently and give us a common base on which to build a sense of community at Hampshire. We should work out the logistical and economic details of such a program and bring the proposal before the entire community by the end of the semester...
7. Build a community center...
8. Make the dining commons and the bookstore community owned and operated. Saga and Atticus are unpopular and inefficient. We should form collectives or cooperatives which could take over ownership and management of them. Mixed Nuts and the Bridge Cafe could serve as models for these collectives; the community work program could supply a labor force.
9. Reorganize governance...Community Council should be dissolved in favor of a more decentralized decision making structure. One such structure would be a network of decision making committees...Each member group in the network would send a representative to a monthly meeting of a community coordinating and overseeing body. Of course, this body would have few decisions to make, since most decisions would be made by the interested people in the standing committees and organizations...
10. Make students, faculty and staff parts of a single community... Faculty and staff should pay activity fees just like students do; activities should, in turn, be planned with faculty and staff in mind. The community work program must treat students, faculty and staff equally...
11. Review and restructure admissions and hiring procedures...
12. Review and restructure the advising system...
13. Review Hampshire's administrative structure...Changes in the administration might make Hampshire run more efficiently and more cheaply, and they may serve to make it less difficult to accomplish academic and community work here.

D. A Plan of Action for Spring, 1980

1. Recruitment at matriculation. We can use a table at matriculation of new and returning students to tell about Hampshire governance and "Is the Experiment Over?" Every matriculating student could sign up for a committee or radial in which s/he is interested. Even if these people never participate, we will at least have their names, and they will have been forced to look over a list of committees and radials.
2. Colloquy on community. A colloquy on community is planned in conjunction with the Ten Year Review for late February. The colloquy should have four equally important emphases: history and theory, problems facing Hampshire, changes we should make and community building activities...
3. Radials. After matriculation and the colloquy, the radials should be well functioning work groups. Each radial should come up with proposals dealing with its specific topics.
Radials need to be sure to solicit ideas from all parts of the community, so that the proposals are acceptable to most of the community. We should not have to campaign for the acceptance of finished proposals; finished proposals should reflect the wishes of the entire community.
4. Community-wide town meetings. By the end of the semester, the entire community should be able to meet to formally adopt proposals written by the radials on a work program, restructuring governance, the community center and other issues. This might be done at one large meeting, but it might generate more interest and be more expedient to have a series of such meetings over the course of the semester.

Rediscovering the Roots of the Hampshire Tree. (Editorial)
Apostrophe, April 28, 1983. p.5.

Did you ever feel like you and maybe a small group of your friends were the first to encounter the structures and contradictions of the Hampshire system? Many of us have felt this way, and have tried to organize, only to feel all the more powerless and alienated. Cutting a new trail is a very lonely process; more so when you don't know that others have tried before. There is a certain air of timelessness at Hampshire which denies the history of community resistance to the Hampshire system. History is a flow of changes which emerge through conflict between social forces; the history of Hampshire College is no exception.

A group of us have recently rediscovered Hampshire's early history of student activism through old issues of College newspapers, fortunately preserved on microfilm. Much of the material came as a shock to us because of its remarkable, ghost-like resemblance to current student struggles. For example, a photograph found in a 1974 paper of students marching to a Trustee meeting at Blair Hall is almost identical to a 1983 Apostrophe photograph.



Although this is one of the more striking examples of how Hampshire's history has repeated itself, there are many others.

Our knowledge of Hampshire's history is far from complete. We would, however, like to share with you some of the things that we have uncovered which have relevance to the present. In 1972, students had already begun to question the social responsibility of Hampshire in regard to the Vietnam War and the corporate ties that certain Trustees had with weapons producers. Later that year, Third World students occupied the Cole Science Center over racism in hiring, admissions and financial aid programs. In 1973, L&C faculty member Robert Rardin published a paper critiquing Hampshire College as a liberal corporation...This led to the formation of a radical collective of faculty and students trying to transform Hampshire's structure to be more egalitarian. The issue of financial aid reemerged in 1974 along with a movement for community control over the College. The spearhead of this movement was the "Student Collective" which grew to over one hundred members. In 1975 this collective formed a coalition with the Third World collective in the heated aftermath of the administrative withdrawal of a Black student from the College.

The search for a new president at Hampshire in 1976 stirred controversy on campus. The process was marked by closed meetings and exclusion of community input. Around this time the movement to divest Hampshire's holdings in corporations operating in South Africa began. This movement was successful but not without sustained political confrontation between members of the community and the Trustees, including another occupation of the Cole Science Center. FISH--the Foundation In order to Save Hampshire--reacted to financial aid cutbacks in student services in the spring of 1980. Their activity culminated in a "decoration" of the campus on parents' day.

Much of this history has been lost from the consciousness of those of us who are here now. New students enter the College with neither the knowledge of these events nor the vehicle to obtain it. Part of the reason for this is the transient nature of the Hampshire community. But the problem is also inherent in the structure of existence here which mirrors society at large. Consider high school American History textbooks which portray a chain of events without evidence of political struggle, even though the struggles have always gone on and in fact have played a crucial role in shaping history.

Even the current divestment movement has experienced discontinuity between last spring's activities, which culminated in yet another occupation of the Cole Science Center, and the ultimately impotent Task Force of this year. (The occupation was a coalition whose demands also included an anti-racist, feminist agenda for the College, a commitment from Hampshire to continue financial aid, and a campus space for the alternative learning program.) The point which the divestment movement has reached--questioning basic structural issues of community control and democracy at Hampshire--echo earlier student political action. This struggle would be greatly empowered by a historical context within which to operate and would thus be less likely to repeat the mistakes of earlier movements.

But divestment is not the only issue on this campus which suffers from lack of historical perspective. Old issues of Climax reveal long and complex histories of the Women's Center, Third World student struggles, sexual abuse at Hampshire, issues around reappointment of faculty, attempts at unionization of faculty and staff, financial aid, and of course...the pet policy (among others). One danger of losing a historical perspective is that things that have been won get taken away. Last year after the occurrence of a shocking rape on campus, a paid part-time position was established for the Counselor-Advocates, something students had been fighting for for a semester. A year later, with the memory of this incident dimmed but the reality of rape still present at Hampshire, this position is in danger of being taken away. (The position of either the C-A or Women's Center coordinator is being considered as expendible in next year's budget.) Town meetings, a College Council, an ombudsman, and a student assistant to the president have all existed and been taken away. The readiness of Trustees to retrench on the South African divestment policy is evidenced in the two violations of this "policy" which had to be brought to their attention by students.

Unless we as members of the Hampshire community recapture our own history, we are likely to repeat the same struggles; but the present structure of Hampshire College encourages this repetition. Movements spring up in regard to particular issues; yet their attempt to change College policy continually comes into conflict with the Hampshire structure. This lends itself not only to give birth to student movements but also to their dissolution. Knowledge of our history will not be given to us unless we actively seek it: we must seek it and embrace it. This can be conducted at a number of levels. The [Editorial] Junta supports the idea of a Division I course in Hampshire history. But inquiry into our past must form an ongoing part of our struggles to transform the institution.

The Editorial Collective: Kitty Holland, Matthew Jonathan Goodman, Karen Peterson, Mark Tuchman, Alexis Muellner, Cliff Putney.

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