photo: Doug Barlow
Exploring the Legacy of the Atomic Age on the Savannah River Watershed
by Stephen Wing
(published in the Lake Claire Clarion, April 2020)
To commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Atomic Age, in March of 2015 Nuclear Watch South launched the Source-to-Sea Savannah River Pilgrimage. Its purpose was to highlight the many toxic and radioactive threats to the river, designated the third most polluted in the nation. Veteran paddlers Bob Brooksher and Jesse Steele joined NWS board member (and Jesse's mother) Joanne Steele to journey by kayak from the river's western headwaters in the Georgia mountains all the way to Tybee Island. They were accompanied by Riverdog, Bob's companion on many previous adventures.
During high school and college, back in the 20th century, I visited the Boundary Waters Canoe Area every summer to paddle and portage the beautiful glacier-carved lakes on the Canadian border. That experience of untouched wilderness still feeds my commitment as an environmentalist and a board member with Nuclear Watch South. So the Savannah River pilgimage called to me from a deep place inside. Unfortunately at the time I was working full-time and could not participate.
This year I got my chance. In March, marking the 75th anniversary, the pilgrims returned to the Savannah River watershed to complete their pilgrimage, navigating from its eastern headwaters in South Carolina until they intersected their earlier route. Since I had retired at the beginning of the year, I eagerly signed up.
The trip brought back blissful memories, such as the thrill of hearing a loon's cry as we set up our first camp. I had no idea these iconic northern birds wintered down south. But in other ways this was a new experience. I’m 63 now and woefully out of shape, and found paddling a kayak much harder work than traveling by canoe. Instead of portaging on foot, we loaded the boats on a trailer and drove to our next "put-in." And though we saw some beautiful scenery, skyscapes, and wildlife, South Carolina is far more civilized than the pristine North Woods. We visited islands strewn with litter, surfed the wakes of motorboats, and passed miles of luxurious lake houses and mansions with fancy boathouses and docks.
The Savannah is formed by the confluence of Georgia's Chattooga/Tugaloo River system and S.C.'s Seneca River. Both tributaries have been dammed to form chains of man-made lakes and provide hydroelectric power. On the Georgia side is Plant Vogtle, near Augusta, where two nuclear reactors now under construction – the only remnant of the much-hyped "nuclear renaissance" – are slated to join two existing reactors in a poor, majority-black community. Directly across the river is the 310-square-mile Savannah River Site, a Cold War nuclear weapons plant that is now a hopelessly contaminated nuclear waste dump. These toxic impacts were addressed by the 2015 pilgrimage. (Watch an 8-minute musical video documentary here.)
On the South Carolina side is Oconee Nuclear Station, where three reactors sit at the southern end of Lake Keowee. At the lake's northern end, an earthen dam holds back the waters of Lake Jocassee. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission estimates the chances of an earthquake dislodging the dam at 1 in 256. Duke Power claims to have re-engineered the site to channel flood waters away from the backup safety equipment. But if they have underestimated, the resulting tsunami would mean a triple meltdown and catastrophic radiological releases from the spent fuel rods stored there in pools of water (as at every other nuclear plant).
The Fukushima disaster in Japan on March 11, 2011, is still spewing radioactive poison nine years later – despite the Japanese government's assurances that the area is safe enough to host some of this summer's Olympic events. But if the pools storing the plant's spent fuel rods had been breached, the disaster would have been exponentially worse.
Our pilgrimage was timed to reach Clemson University on March 11 to observe Fukushima Day with a public event co-sponsored by the Foothills Sierra Club. The university rowing teams were out in force for spring practice as we arrived. That night we screened an excellent documentary called Containment (available on Amazon Prime) about the dangers of nuclear waste, the lack of long-term solutions, and the failure of even short-term proposals for interim storage. Our message was well-received, except for one gentleman who seemed offended to learn that his community might conceivably share the fate of Fukushima.
This discussion was the climax of our journey, as the next day we reached the point where the two tributaries once met, now in the middle of Lake Hartwell, and headed for shore. The work of exposing the past, present and future legacy of nuclear contamination must continue for literally tens of thousands of years, but I was grateful that I had survived the rigors of the pilgrimage. Riverdog, on the other hand, was ready for more.
Poems from the trip:
The Lake Claire Clarion
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all contents © 2010 Stephen Wing