No waterfront works harder than the waterfront in front of a nuclear power plant.

In the 15 years since I covered the Maine Yankee Nuclear Power Plant for the Courier Publications newspapers, I have become convinced of that. Each summer as I head off to the beach, I wonder about the state of that shoreline along Bailey Point in Wiscasset.

When friends dig into local lobsters and clams, I wonder where they were caught or dug. The plant ran on the idea of a closed-loop system where cold water was brought in from the river and circulated to cool the atomic plant’s operations, then discharged. In theory, it was to have been released in the same condition as it was when it originally was brought in, but I didn’t know anybody willing to drink a sample.

I had only been at the Lincoln County Weekly in Damariscotta a few days when the “Maine Yankee beat” landed on my desk. As a UMaine graduate and journalist with just five years of experience under my belt, I was eager for a difficult assignment, but wondered if this might be a bit over my head.

My concerns sprang mainly from overheard conversations behind the cubicle of the former reporter on the beat, as he made telephone calls to federal nuclear regulators in Washington, DC, public relations reps at the nuclear power plant, and rowdy environmental activists who insisted the newspaper was in Maine Yankee’s back pocket. I knew everyone was equally angry with the newspaper, which I took to be a good sign that our coverage had been objective.

There was breaking news: steam tubes were leaking, which of course meant the “closed loop” no longer was closed. Breaches such as these meant contamination of water from the so-called “hot” side of the plant to what was supposed to be the “cold” side. These simple terms took on much heavier meaning when one realized it wasn’t a temperature difference. Rather it meant radioactive vs. non-radioactive. Considering I had ducked high school physics, I worried I had bitten off more than I could chew.

Once word got out that there was a new kid on the beat, the activists were ringing my phone off the hook, eager to educate me and indoctrinate me to their way of thinking. A few even threatened to drop leaflets from airplane across Lincoln County informing the public that I was “bought and sold” if I didn’t do their bidding. I wasn’t in Kansas anymore.

Meanwhile, over at Maine Yankee, the good PR folks wanted to take me to lunch, bury me in feel-good documents that explained in simple terms that a little radiation is “a good thing — like taking a vitamin,” and that a nuclear power plant was no more dangerous than a flight on a airplane or getting dental x-rays. Hmmmm.

It was a lot to take in, and there was a relentless flow of bad news from the activists and good news from the MY reps. The federal regulators, who I had hoped would be the harbingers of truth, turned out to be less than trustworthy. My main contact at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission got caught faxing a confidential federal report to officials at Maine Yankee. There was a fox guarding the henhouse.

So who was I to believe? I always guessed the truth was somewhere in the middle, but needless to say was relieved when the plant shut down and began decommissioning in 1999. It was the best thing for all concerned, I was convinced: the environment, the public, its own employees, and definitely my personal life and sanity. Of course, that meant the town of Wiscasset got a bad case of sticker shock when the local source of nearly 90 percent of its tax base disappeared virtually overnight, but somehow the lights are still on in Wiscasset. Dire predictions of skyrocketing electric bills were refuted by a notice with my CMP bill last month that electric rates have dropped 9 percent in the last four years, while the cost of nearly everything else has climbed steadily. How could that be?

What sticks with me most when I think of those Maine Yankee years were disturbing claims that came in from the activists about the river, land and air around the plant. They insisted there were radioactive isotopes being discovered in lobster and deer, and that they could prove it. State and federal regulators seldom gave definitive answers, pointing to weapons testing fallout as a potential cause for radioactivity in the flora and fauna. Strange things happened, like a freak lobster was caught and taken to a nearby aquarium for study and eventual display. But before the newspaper went to press, I was told the celebrity lobster had died, which struck me as odd. Activists insisted the mutant was all Maine Yankee’s fault. State biologists and others said they were paranoid.

At one point, Wiscasset was the bloodworm capital of Maine. The huge worms, dug near Bailey Point and sold as bait, were said to exist before the atomic plant, but apparently thrived after it started operating. Maybe because of the warm water supply from the plant? Or other reasons?

All I know is each year when the students in Wiscasset schools took a field trip to the river, and there were pictures of these kids in the newspaper, up to their ankles and elbows in mud and grinning broadly, activists would lose their minds. They would ask who in their right minds would authorize such a trip and what parent would subject their child to the dangers of the Sheepscot River even at a distance from Maine Yankee.

Meanwhile, plant operators and state and federal regulators said, with no hint of irony, that “the solution is dilution.” The first time I heard it, I thought I was mistaken. But no, they meant exactly what I thought they did, and made no apology about it. Essentially, any small contamination incident was no worry because in the grand scheme of things, it was diluted and long gone before it ever caused a problem. Phew, what a relief.

These thoughts came flooding back as I saw a copy of a new self-published book, “Before Maine Yankee, Memories of a Small Island, Little Oak Island, Sheepscot Back River, Wiscasset, Maine” by Sarah Eustis Pierce.

The 85-page paperback is a speedy read, filled with nostalgic black and white photographs and heartfelt recollections of the family cabin that was stationed on Little Oak Island. This small, rocky plot of land had to be abandoned by the heart-broken family when Maine Yankee came to town.

The book is a sad reminder of how things were before the plant came to town, for one family anyway, and how they likely never will be the same again. Pierce tugs at the heart as she tells about her family’s order to “abandon” their beloved island, and the last sad visit to the family cabin on Little Oak Island. She also relates her return to the waters off the island, likely in sight of guards tending the spent fuel storage installation at the Maine Yankee grounds, just a year or two ago.

For more about the book, visit

Kris Ferrazza was named the Maine Press Association’s Journalist of the Year in 1998 for her work covering Maine Yankee. She now lives in Waldoboro with her husband and daughter.