In the early morning hours of March 28, 1979, the nuclear reactor at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania began to melt. A few months later--the precise date is now lost to the baby boomer minds that were there--the Snake River Alliance was born in Boise.
It was sometime in the spring, before Boise State let out for the summer. Ron Rose and Kevin Welch, from Emmett, had taken out a classified ad in the Idaho Statesman, calling a meeting at Julia Davis Park, recalls Diane Jones.
At the same exact time, a separate meeting had been arranged on campus. Jones--who half-jokingly calls the coincidence a "cosmic vortex"--knew about both, so she took the handful of people at the campus meeting over the Boise River to a bench at Julia Davis.
The seven people around that bench held the first-ever Snake River Alliance meeting. This year is the group's 30th watchdogging the Idaho National Lab and Idaho's role in nuclear research, waste and weapons.
The accident at Three Mile Island invigorated anti-nuclear groups across the country, giving new confidence to those who had predicted a meltdown. And while many involved in Idaho were concerned about pollution and nuclear proliferation, it was a dry, voluminous study on radioactive contaminants migrating through the Snake River aquifer that first informed Idaho's homegrown anti-nuke movement.
Kerry Cooke, who ran the alliance in the '90s and now serves as treasurer of its board of directors, moved to Star in 1979. Soon after, she read an article citing Snake River Alliance revelations that the government nuclear laboratory near Idaho Falls had been injecting radioactive water into a deep well beneath the Snake River plain.
"I didn't know where my water came from," Cooke said. "I started worrying about my daughter drinking the water."
Cooke drove in to Boise and left a donation for the Snake River Alliance at one of its early offices in the Idaho Building on Eighth and Bannock streets.
While founded on the strength of this environmental concern, the Snake River Alliance has never been primarily an environmental group. It was not strictly an anti-war group either, though many members were ardent pacifists. It had many ties to national anti-nuclear organizations, but was led by enlightened and eccentric farm boys from Nampa and the Magic Valley, pacifists from Ketchum and people like Cooke, who took their concerns as citizens and acted on them.
And, unlike many Eastern Seaboard anti-nuclear groups, the Snake River Alliance was not even overtly opposed to nuclear power, at least for its first two-and-a-half decades.
While it does not fit into a neat category, the alliance was a unique hub of leftist politics in Idaho through the '80s and '90s. As it carved its own course through the uncharted waters of the Nuclear Age and the Cold War, the alliance drew activists from across Idaho, becoming a center of protest in the state, uniting a core group of environmentalists, pacifists, church goers and folks who lived "in the shadows of" INL.
"For so long, the Snake River Alliance was the center of activism in the city, and probably the state as well," said Roger Sherman, who moved from upstate New York to Burley in 1979 to work as a community organizer, and quickly became involved in the alliance's anti-nuclear work.
Today, the alliance, with a nod to its roots, keeps tabs on nuclear waste in Idaho and opposes nuclear weapons. But it has expanded its mission to include promoting alternative sources of energy and acting as a repository of information on energy conservation.
"I think that our work does look a little different," said Andrea Shipley, the alliance's current executive director.
Eschewing its former radical image, Shipley said they are working more and more with the Legislature and Idaho's Office of Energy Resources.
"We're taking on the identity of Idaho's clean energy advocate," Shipley said.
Thirty years ago, the Snake River Alliance had a much gloomier message.
"When people of my generation were growing up, we actually thought about nuclear weapons a lot," said Beatrice Brailsford, the alliance's longest serving staffer, who still works for the group out of Pocatello. "We knew people who had bomb shelters."
Brailsford, originally from Buhl, said she never was comfortable with nuclear weapons. But Dorian Duffin, 57, one of the alliance's founding members, grew up in the Rupert area next door to a nuclear submarine captain, a god-like figure to the boys in the neighborhood.
One of the original functions of INL, which has had several names over the years, was to train America's nuclear Navy personnel.
"This was a huge thing to us; it was cool," said Duffin, who painted houses and worked as a handyman when he wasn't working on nuclear issues.
Duffin served in the military and later entered Boise State, studying geology when he came across research by Jack Barraclough, a U.S. Geological Survey hydrologist who went on to serve in the Idaho Legislature. Barraclough documented the lab's injection of radioactive water into the aquifer for nearly 20 years, measuring how far the pollutants traveled and how concentrated they were when they spilled into the Snake River.
The data had been collected--and made public--for some 15 years before the alliance seized on the research and raised public ire for the practice. One of the group's first major actions took place on Sept. 13, 1980, a day of protest at what was then called the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory.
They called it Idaho Eclipse, and the event featured journalist/activist Sam Day. It was billed as "a gathering with music, theater and sharing of information," and took place at the lab, about 50 miles west of Idaho Falls.
The alliance pushed the issue of the injection wells, getting the state to investigate the practice. Barraclough said that at about the same time the state started monitoring the injections itself, hiring a radiologist who would follow him to the test sites and take his own samples; Barraclough and the lab people called him the state spy.
The alliance interviewed state radiologist Gerald Ramsey and published the interview in its newspaper, The Idaho Sun, in the spring of 1982.
By 1989, the lab decided to use holding ponds--a still imperfect containment--instead of releasing the waste directly into the ground.
Barraclough, who takes much of the credit for ending the practice, calls the alliance's activist approach "ham fisted." He said his methodical documentation gave the lab enough incentive to reduce the waste on its own.
But the alliance counts ending the injection of radioactive waste into the groundwater as one of its first successes and the campaign that put them on the lab's radar.
"They paid a lot of attention to us early on," said Duffin. "They had spies."
One of the first alliance offices was in a house on Harrison Boulevard, and federal agents would sit across the street and watch their comings and goings, he recalled.
Nick Nichols, who retired eight years ago from his job as the media relations director for the INL, remembered the early days of the alliance as well.
"I don't remember anyone really raising environmental issues at the time," Nichols said. "It was something new for us."
At that time, Nichols was an editor at the Idaho State Journal in Pocatello. He remembers Liz Paul, the alliance's first official executive director, coming in to talk about the lab.
"They raised some issues then that caused us to more closely examine the safety of that material being stored out at the site," said Nichols. "We looked into it ... we were satisfied they were doing a good job storing the solid waste."
Others who worked within the nuclear lab complex also recognize the role citizen groups like the alliance played in opening up some of the longtime secrecy of the government labs.
"The Snake River Alliance and a number of other environmental groups across the country were very instrumental in saying, 'we want a voice in the cleanup ... and we have a right to be informed,'" said Brad Bugger, also a former State Journal reporter and INL spokesman who now works at the Department of Energy's Idaho offices.
In the mid-80s the Department of Energy was forced to comply with federal hazardous waste laws for the first time, giving groups like the alliance and the states more oversight and access to information.
"It's amazing how much we could figure out," Brailsford said, adding that one lab cleanup worker told her they knew stuff about the waste before he knew about it.
As the alliance pushed the groundwater issue, members also started to talk about other forms of nuclear waste and to parade victims of radiation across the state. They put together a program about the fears of children growing up during the Cold War. In 1982, the alliance attempted to run a ballot initiative to step up state monitoring of waste at the lab.
But during this early period, the organization was mostly volunteer-run. One early grant from a foundation in Eugene, Ore., amounted to $800 or $900, Cooke recalled. A 1981 University News story put the alliance's annual budget at $10,000.
Cooke was a single mother, and though she had a handful of day jobs--she was a secretary in a City Hall office and ran former state Sen. Mike Burkett's successful 1988 upset against Sen. Jim Risch--her kids had duct tape holding their glasses together.
"It was really stupid that I was doing this," Cooke said. "I should have gotten a real job with benefits."
The group raised money at both rock and classical concerts. And they charged $3 a head for monthly community dinners, which became epic gatherings in the activist community. Two hundred people would come to the dinners to hear speakers like Earth First! founders Dave Foreman and Howie Wolke and entertainment from musicians like folk singer Faith Petric. Members signed up to bring desserts, to set up, serve and wash dishes. Duffin was in charge of the beer.
"It really was--for a long time--the center of the activist world," Sherman said.
The alliance held an epic concert at the old gym at Boise State in 1981, called Water for Life, which sold out in 20 minutes. Jackson Browne and Bonnie Raitt played and Carole King closed the show with "Locomotion."
The alliance worked with American Indian Movement activist John Trudell, from the Duck Valley Indian Reservation, to bring the concert series to Boise. Trudell spoke at the concert and the late Duck Valley elder Corbin Harney impressed alliance organizers with a vision he had of unusable water, tainted with nuclear waste.
"I'm agains' the nuke," Mike Jones recalled Harney telling the planning group before the show.
In 1984, King helped the cause again, with a concert at Boise High School, in which she sang "One Small Voice." That was the weekend folk singer Rosalie Sorrels moved back to Idaho.
For some time, the alliance had been trying to make the connection between nuclear waste in Idaho and nuclear weapons.
"Every time they stepped on the throttle of a nuclear sub, the exhaust came out in Idaho," Duffin said.
But in 1986, the Department of Energy made the connection even clearer. A new reactor that used lasers to produce plutonium for nuclear warheads, the Special Isotope Separator reactor, was proposed for INL.
To that point, the site's 52 reactors had been used primarily for research purposes. This would be the first explicit use of the Idaho lab for weapons production.
Paul put together a project called Lifeguard Idaho, which took the feds by surprise.
"They had to do NEPA [an environmental impact statement] on this, so we just blew the whole thing out into public scrutiny," Paul said. "We pushed it out of the shadows into the really bright spotlights."
The New York Times covered the public hearings for SIS, which the alliance packed with hundreds of its supporters. The Los Angeles Times did a "Column One" feature on Paul and how the alliance helped beat SIS.
Idaho Sens. Steve Symms and Jim McClure both wanted the SIS program brought to Idaho Falls.
McClure charged, in a 1989 Statesman story at the time of the alliance's 10th anniversary, that the group was a "radical fringe" group, "initiated by, and is the product of paid efforts from people outside this state. It's not an independent activity that just kind of grew up out of the sagebrush."
Pat Ford, an early director of the Idaho Conservation League, agreed in the Statesman article that the alliance was radical, particularly in Idaho Falls, but not fringe. And Walt Minnick, now a Democratic congressman from Idaho's First District, said the term "radical fringe" was "a mischaracterization, unfair to a group of very dedicated people."
The group was subject to criticism that it was not radical enough as well. Twin Falls anti-nuclear activist Peter Rickards said in the same story, 20 years ago, that the group was not "pushing political pressure buttons to get waste cleaned up."
Cooke responded that they would not advocate cleanup at the expense of opposing nuclear build-up in the form of SIS.
Rickards continues to criticize the alliance's tactics and research today.
"Because of the superficial understanding of the Snake River Alliance and the media, the promise to remove all of the buried plutonium is being broken before our eyes right now," Rickards told BW.
In 1990, SIS was eliminated from President George H.W. Bush's budget. The alliance celebrated the victory, but Paul says now there were many factors that led to its demise.
"The end of the Cold War helped," she said, as did the excess of plutonium stores.
Later in the '90s, the alliance fought another group of weapons-grade reactors, the New Production Reactor. But by then, waste issues were highly publicized in Idaho, and the lab had been declared a Superfund waste cleanup site.
In 1988, then-Idaho Gov. Cecil Andrus stopped waste shipment from the Rocky Flats Plant near Denver from coming into Idaho.
The Twin Falls Times-News also started to look into waste at INL, producing a series of investigative articles in 1989 exposing the types of radioactive waste being dumped in the desert outside of Idaho Falls: tons of radioactive animal feces, 200 tons of uranium and a railroad tanker car of highly radioactive liquid waste leaked from corroded steel pipes. The series also exposed a plume of radioactive iodine gas released in a 1961 explosion that settled over the Magic Valley, among many other frightening items.
Then-reporter Niels Nokkentved got the information through Freedom of Information Act requests and wrote the series, even traveling to Michigan to recount the concrete burial of a man there who had been exposed to radiation.
"They would inspire me to dig a bit deeper rather than accept news releases from the Department of Energy," Nokkentved said of the Snake River Alliance.
He would frequently call Brailsford to get more background on announcements coming out of the lab. People who lived in the area would criticize the alliance in public but in private, acknowledged they were right, Nokkentved said. One anonymous lab worker would call him and confirm stories after the Times-News published them.
The alliance prided itself on research, filing Freedom of Information Act requests and sharing the findings with journalists.
"We could issue a press release and the Statesman would actually write a story," said Jones.
"We were research and outreach," recalled Mike Jones, who is married to Diane Jones and printed many of the alliance's early posters on a silk screen machine in his basement. "We came close to civil disobedience."
How close the alliance came to civil disobedience is a matter of perception. Shipley asserted that no Snake River Alliance actions had ended in arrests. But group members blocked traffic in front of Boise City Hall and the Idaho Statehouse in the '80s, dropping casks of fake nuclear waste in the street and marching in radiation suits. They encouraged members to find shipments of nuclear material on trucks and trains and send in photos of themselves with the stuff--they called it "Catch a Nuke."
And at least one active member was arrested multiple times protesting nuclear shipments.
In 1991, Bill Chisholm, an activist from Buhl, temporarily blocked a truck hauling nuclear waste through Pocatello. A year later, he was arrested for dumping a can of red paint on a train hauling waste to the lab.
"I couldn't figure out how I was going to stop the train," Chisholm said. "My idea [was] to mark the thing with red paint."
Chisholm said that throwing the paint was his idea, not the Snake River Alliance's. But he was also an active member of the alliance. Others were present as well, protesting the waste shipment with signs and silent vigils.
"We got really heavy into anti-war," Mike Jones said.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the alliance organized peace marches with the Idaho Peace Coalition, a pacifist group led by Liz Paul.
In late 2005, the alliance began discussing broadening its mission. Jeremy Maxand, then executive director, wanted to offer solutions, rather than just fight against nuclear waste and initiatives at the lab.
"I knew in my gut that there was probably enough clean energy out there," said Maxand, who now owns a coffee roastery in Alaska. "But I didn't feel like I had all the information to communicate that."
Even in the early '80s, alliance members were drawn to alternative energy. A small ad in a 1981 copy of the Idaho Sun gives a number for the Solar Energy Association of Idaho. Cooke said they were so busy fighting nuclear weapons at the lab, they did not have time to work on wind and solar.
Maxand hired an energy policy director in 2007. Ken Miller came from the Northwest Energy Coalition and had been promoting alternative energy in Idaho for years.
Some members of the group's board were worried about losing focus, or mission drift. Paul said that in decades past, the alliance had courted INL scientists who wanted their research to be used to solve the energy crisis but were aghast at the lab's flirtations with nuclear weapons. But when Maxand asked her about moving into green energy some years after she had left the alliance, Paul fully backed it.
Gary Richardson, who ran the Snake River alliance before Maxand, was not as enthusiastic.
"Currently, the alliance is going much more into the energy stuff, which doesn't thrill me," Richardson said. "I just think the focus should still be on forcing the government to clean up the mess out there."
But Richardson also represents a widely held view that nuclear power could be one way out of the impending peak oil crisis.
Maxand disagreed and set about studying the issue.
"I am 100 percent or more absolutely certain that we have enough renewable energy in the United States to do everything we need to do and more," he said.
Andrea Shipley, who took over after Maxand left, embraces the renewables route as well, though the nuclear industry continues to tout a "nuclear renaissance" that is both green and safe.
"I think INL is more excited about the prospect of this 'nuclear renaissance,'" Brailsford said. "Which is far more problematic than I think the people in Eastern Idaho realize."
In the past two years, the Snake River Alliance has fought a private nuclear power plant, most recently proposed for Elmore County, testifying against it at public meetings and attempting to drum up opposition in the public and the media. The group is also preparing its campaign against Areva, a French nuclear utility that wants to reprocess nuclear waste in Eastern Idaho.*
They will launch the anti-Areva campaign at an Oct. 10 reunion community dinner at the Basque Center to celebrate their 30th year.
"Our program isn't completely put together," Shipley said. "Which is so 30 years ago."* CORRECTION This story incorrectly stated the purpose of a proposed nuclear facility near Idaho Falls. The French nuclear company Areva plans to enrich uranium, not reprocess nuclear waste.