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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:

Rhododendron Palace
Even the sunlight is green down here
between the green walls
of this rhododendron palace
with its green-tinted water
and a tinge of green on all the rocks,
its crowd of tangled limbs
reaching out with waxy green fingers—
down here
where the trail
crosses the river and the river winds out
toward the windy lake
while our boat sits rocking
on the mutual reflection
of water and light—
Only later
in the spring, when this entire cove bursts
into flaring white flowers
will it become blindingly apparent
what all those green limbs and fingers
were reaching out for . . .
And if,
for some unforeseeable reason
we should happen to come back
to witness it, would it
occur to us to wonder
what our own awkward
fumbling fingers are reaching for
when we stretch
toward the intangibles that wait,
hidden somewhere inside us,
to blaze up
into blossom?


It’s easy: just
reach ahead
and pull the paddleblade back
through the resistance
and the give
of the water beside you.
Pull with everything you’ve got,
every muscle
in your entire body, every ounce
of willpower you own.
Then lift, rest
a fraction of a second,
reach ahead
and do it again.
Then repeat
and repeat again, striving
self-consciously for rhythm
till it becomes
as constant
and inevitable as breathing.
Don’t stop.
Don’t look ahead
at the blue distance
between the islands
or at the shoreline to either side
expecting to see progress.
Watch the water
rushing past
with every paddlestroke
as the bow of the kayak
surges ahead.
Watch the light
swirling in the eddies
as the paddleblade
and slips through.
Keep going.
Don’t stop.


Whitewater Falls
This is where ancient people
came to worship:
I can see it in the eyes
of the people I pass on the asphalt path
heading back to their cars
as the roaring through the trees
rises steadily toward a crescendo
and it comes gradually
into view— 
                      This is what
ancient people came here to worship,
I can see: not the water itself,
or the constant thunder
of its falling, or even the unseen
power that makes it fall—
that god known nowadays
as gravity— but the nameless deity
that lives in human awe,
the wonder that each of us unknowingly
carries around inside until we round
a bend in the path and see
through a gap in the foliage
who that booming voice
belongs to—
                          But this, I can see,
is why ancient people came
to worship here: this ceaseless flow
out of the looming escarpment
of the Blue Ridge, crashing down
from its towering cliff
into the depths it has hollowed
out of solid granite
over millennia, an irrefutable truth
utterly independent of me
and my kind, world without end,

to the lake
out there in the dark,
cold black depths
shifting sleeplessly
under the moon,
I lie awake
in my tent, riding
the dark toss and turn
of the waves.




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