by Katherine Mullen, Peace Action Education Fund intern
Growing up in the mid-1990s and early 2000s in northern Westchester County, New York, I hardly knew the significance of having the Indian Point nuclear plant 11 miles away from my hometown of Yorktown Heights. Located 50 miles from Manhattan on the Hudson River, the Indian Point nuclear plant occasionally made headlines in our local newspaper, although our community was strangely silent on the issue and existed in a bubble of economic and social privilege that is common in most of Westchester County.
When I was a junior in high school, my social studies teacher raised the issue in class and made us think about the consequences of living so close to an aging nuclear plant. That year, in 2000, Indian Point had its most serious incident when a small radioactive leak from a steam tube forced the plant to close for 11 months. My social studies teacher was the only adult I knew in our community who talked openly about the nuclear plant with students.
The Indian Point nuclear plant faded from my mind even more as I left Yorktown Heights after college and moved to Maryland in 2005. But I was brought back to my days living near the nuclear plant this week when I participated with Peace Action staff and members in the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability’s (ANA) DC Days and met nuclear disarmament activists from across the country who live downwind and downstream from nuclear plants and weapons facilities. For three days, we lobbied our Representatives and Senators for cuts to nuclear weapons programs, funding for environmental cleanup, support for nonproliferation, and a commitment to oppose loan guarantees for new nuclear reactors. We asked them to not include nuclear energy in a “clean energy standard” and to end funding for plutonium fuel (MOX) programs.
Most of the Congressional staff whom I met listened, responded thoughtfully and asked questions in our nearly 30-minute-long lobby sessions. Some aides knew more about our issues than others and all promised to bring our views to his boss, who knew as little or as much as his or her staff.
When my team met on Tuesday with Eric Bohl, a staffer working for Rep. Vicky Hartzler (R-Mo.), several members of the group talked about the need for cleanup at the Kansans City Plant, told personal stories about their experiences working at the plant and the negative health effects from it. Bohl was straightforward in telling us that he has yet to have a conversation with Hartzler on nuclear weapons since she and her staff have only been in Congress for a few months.
Earlier that day, as my team was waiting to meet with Shane Knisley, legislative fellow for Sen. Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.), we had the rare opportunity to meet the Senator, who casually walked into his office carrying a coffee cup and enthusiastically greeted us. After learning that we were from ANA, Cardin encouraged us in our work and said that more people need to know about the importance of our issues.
As a first-time activist to these issues and being brand-new to lobbying, I am more inspired with the stories and determination of the activists I met during DC Days than with the slow and frustrating political machine that is Congress. Their stories of working, living and organizing communities near nuclear plants, laboratories and weapons facilities and their expertise and passion has created a new, deeper consciousness for me that I never had growing up in the shadow of Indian Point. I know first-hand how a culture of silence and denial exists around the nuclear weapons complex. The continuing work of more than 80 activists in DC Days and their communities is essential in shattering the silence, raising consciousness and moving toward a world free of nuclear weapons.