Mass. Municipal Wholesale Electric Co.: On Being a Nuclear Flak

I was a nuclear flak.

From an industry perspective, I was neither well-prepared nor eager to promote the magic of nuclear power . . . and, it certainly was NOT what I had signed on to do when I went to work for the Massachusetts Municipal Wholesale Electric Company – MMWEC – in February, 1977.

Like my many of my friends and colleagues at MMWEC, my mission was to promote public ownership and community control of a vital service. MMWEC, created by the legislature as a political subdivision of the Commonwealth only months earlier, represented a new model for public ownership through the use of tax-exempt revenue bonds. For young lefties like me, MMWEC offered a glimpse at the future of public ownership.

I was not alone. There were only 27 of us at MMWEC in those days, and many were Midwest-style progressives, veterans of the National Rural Electric Cooperative system. We were dedicated to the idea of low-cost, community-controlled electric power, and were determined to bring the battle to capitalist New England. Our headquarters was a deserted former nuclear weapons storage area at Westover Air Base, where we would jog past machine gun pillboxes at lunch time, or ski over the tops of abandoned nuclear bunkers. My darkroom was a former interrogation room. It was all new and strange — almost as strange as the unpronounceable name of our project – EM-WECK.

And if the mission involved some contradictions and demanded a strange kind of public nuclear advocacy. . . well, hell, even ole Woody Guthrie sang the praises of damming the Columbia River in order to benefit the common folks.

I once told the Real Paper’s Joe Conason, who was then covering the Clam and Seabrook, that we saw nuclear power as highly problematic but temporarily necessary for gaining a toe-hold in public ownership. When he quoted me, our director groaned but declined to get very angry. What I had said was unfortunate PR, but it was true. At MMWEC, we didn’t lie. We were the people’s utility.

Things, however, started to unravel. We doubled in size. And then doubled again, as did the size and complexity of our nuclear commitment. The faster we grew, the harder it was to hear the public we served as its opposition to Seabrook grew stronger. This was aggravated by the fact that the newest members of our staff were not public power advocates. Many were “utility” people – including our new director, a Texan named Philip C. Otness.

It was clear we were in trouble when, one day shortly after he arrived in 1979, Otness returned smiling from a meeting at Public Service Company of New Hampshire which had agreed to sell us a big chunk of Seabrook. Seabrook was in trouble, and PSNH as now ready to start unloading it.

“That Bill Tallman is a hell of a nice guy,” said Otness, referring to the notorious PSNH president. I was stunned.

“These people . . .,” I gasped. “These people are . . . not . . . our . . . friends.”

“They are now,” replied Otness.

That’s when I started to leak. Like a sieve. And not discretely. I would talk to anyone who would listen, leaking as I went. I would write a pro-nuke news release, and immediately turn around and get on the phone to “clarify” the news.

The beginning of the end, for me, came two years later. Our member communities had started to wise up, and were starting to vote on, and reject, additional nuke capacity. I prepared a news release favorably comparing the cost of the new capacity with alternatives. The only problem was that the comparison was seriously exaggerated by a math error, my error. As the releases were about to be mailed, I explained the situation to Caren Piemonte, our new communications director. “We have to revise them,” I said.

“Your job,” said Caren coldly, “is to mail these releases. Now.”

I headed toward the mailroom with the releases. As I passed the trash compactor, I dumped the tray of releases into it, and turned it on.

As I said, I was not well-prepared to be a nuclear flak.

I still cherish the vision of public ownership, and am saddened by the ways in which it has been betrayed. At one time, I hoped that nuclear power, operated by the people, for people and not for profit, could become safe, reliable and liberating. I was wrong. I am grateful to both MMWEC and the Clam for allowing me to discover this, and for prompting me to read Amory Lovins, who said that when it comes to nukes, there is no real compromise. To take that path, the hard path, inevitably leads to very hard world, and very hard way of being.