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50 years ago, act of civil disobedience in western Mass. ignited a movement against nuclear power

It was George Washington’s birthday, February 22,,1974.

On that cold, clear night, Sam Lovejoy got a ride from the communal farm where he lived to the Montague Plains, where Northeast Utilities had erected a 500-foot weather tower to gather data for two proposed nuclear power plants.

Lovejoy, who was 27 at the time, had visited the site several times before and knew that the inch-thick steel guy wires stabilizing the tower could be loosened with a crowbar. The wires were controlled by a piece of hardware known as a turnbuckle.

He went to work.

“I undid one and it didn’t tip over” Lovejoy said. “So, I undid two and it didn’t tip over. And I undid three and it didn’t tip over.”

While Lovejoy was working on the fourth turnbuckle, he noticed the tension on the last guy wire was intense. All of a sudden it came undone and the cables began crashing against the tower, which pulled itself over. The tower went down at around 2:00 a.m.

'It was the beginning of a movement'

Lovejoy walked to a nearby road and flagged down the first car that passed by, which happened to be a police car. He was given a lift to the police station in Turners Falls, where he presented a type-written, four-page statement.

"[The desk sergeant] would read a sentence and look at me. And then three more sentences and look at me,” Lovejoy said. “And the second page, he’s sort of scanning it a little more and on the third page he was like, ‘Holy cow ... Did you write this?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ ‘Is this your signature on the last page?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘I’m going to have to arrest you. I’ve got to make some phone calls.’”

The prosecutor charged Lovejoy with destruction of personal property, a felony that carried a five-year prison sentence. At the trial that fall, Lovejoy represented himself and put expert witnesses on the stand to testify about the dangers of nuclear radiation.

The judge acquitted Lovejoy on a technicality: the tower was considered real property, not personal property.

But Lovejoy’s stand against nuclear power reverberated around the country and his act of civil disobedience ignited what became a nationwide movement to stop construction of nuclear plants.

Sam Lovejoy, shown here shortly after the tower toppling in the 1975 documentary, "Lovejoy’s Nuclear War."
Green Mountain Films
Sam Lovejoy, shown here shortly after the tower toppling in the 1975 documentary, "Lovejoy’s Nuclear War."

“It was like Paul Revere [warning that the British are coming],” said Anna Gyorgy, who lived at the Montague commune with Lovejoy. “It was really saying, ‘Watch out. This thing is too dangerous and we’re going to stop it.’ It was the beginning of a movement.”

Gyorgy and others at the Montague commune, including Harvey “Sluggo” Wasserman, played a pivotal role in organizing the Clamshell Alliance, the New England anti-nuclear coalition that successfully fought proposed reactors in Rhode Island and New Hampshire.

Lovejoy barnstormed the country for three years speaking out against nuclear power.

“There is now in every village, hamlet, town, city anti-nuclear organizing going on," he said at a 1978 rally opposing two reactors in Jamesport.

In the early 1980’s Lovejoy worked for Musicians United for Safe Energy (MUSE), a group of rock stars that raised money for the anti-nuclear movement. MUSE staged a series of sold-out concerts at Madison Square Garden in New York and organized an outdoor rally that drew 200,000 people.

'A particular moment in time'

At the age of 40 Lovejoy went to law school and later took a job with the Massachusetts Department of Fish and Game, acquiring land for recreation and endangered species habitat.

His fellow civil servants were well aware of his famous act of civil disobedience.

“One guy said to me after I did get the job, 'I’d really appreciate it if you don’t screw up,’ He said, ‘I was on the interview committee and I told them you’re not crazy like it looks like on paper. You’re not going to be knocking over any more towers, right?’ And I said, ‘No. That was a particular moment in time where a particular action made eminent sense.’”

The two nuclear plants proposed for Montague were canceled in 1980 by Northeast Utilities, which is now known as Eversource Energy. Plans to build reactors were scrapped all over the United States, including in Oklahoma, Ohio, Florida, Indiana and California.

“For years, the feds were sending money out to universities, fattening up nuclear engineering programs. But the fact of the matter was, you know, for about 30 years they just completely disappeared,” Lovejoy said.

Last summer a new nuclear power plant in Georgia began operation. It was the first time in more than 30 years a new reactor began producing electricity in the U.S.

A handful of Lovejoy’s old comrades from the anti-nuclear movement now embrace nuclear energy — reluctantly — as a necessary response to the climate crisis. But Sam Lovejoy is still adamantly opposed to nuclear power.

Lovejoy left the Montague commune years ago. These days, he and his wife Kathy Schermerhorn live in Montague. There’s a small pick-up truck in their driveway with a bumper sticker that proudly declares “No Nukes.”

Lovejoy will recount the tower toppling at a celebration on February 22 at the Shea Theater in Turners Falls, marking a half-century since his infamous act.

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