Friday, December 2, 2005
All anybody really wants in life is to make a mark ~ leave a token behind somewhere that says we stopped and visited for a while before returning home to the cosmos that spawned us. We want our lives to matter. Some strive to become captains of industry and amass great fortunes, while others choose to leave behind a legacy of art; still others create a flesh and blood legacy of children and grandchildren. And then there are those rare and precious jewels that simply wish to leave this world a better place than they found it.
My friend Irene was like that. I met Irene Kock and her partner David Martin in the fall of 1986. I had been inspired by a meeting with Jeff Brackett to join a group that he and Irene and Dave had founded. Its name was Durham Nuclear Awareness, and we became the self-appointed nuclear watchdogs in the area. While members came and went, the core group of about six people pretty much remained the same. When we began we couldn't even get the local media to take our concerns about nuclear safety seriously, but slowly the media, the regulators and the industry itself began to sit up and take notice. Jeff would often say, "Imagine what we could do if there were 12 of us!"
It would be nice to take credit for what happened, but it was mostly Irene and Dave who did the work. They would identify the issues, and tell us where we should focus our attention. Irene would spend days pouring over what Ontario Hydro called Significant Event Reports that chronicled the misdoings at our nuclear power plants. She used the Freedom of Information Act to get copies of secret documents. She made careful notes, presented her findings to local health committees, parliamentary committees and the Atomic Energy Control Board's review of various operating licenses. Measured, accurate and thorough, she pointed out huge holes in the nuclear safety net.
In 1999, Irene and Dave were given an opportunity to work for the Sierra Club of Canada, which meant they could finally earn a living wage for the tremendous work that they did. After a dozen years of meeting in our living room once a month, their work ~ our work ~ was suddenly legitimized.
And then on New Year's Eve 2001, Irene's bright shiny light was snuffed out in car accident.
The main hall at the funeral home was full. We tried to count ~ 400, maybe 500 people spilled out of the hall and into the crisp January air. We looked around in amazement. Half the people there were from the nuclear industry. The pretense of us versus them was gone, just like Irene. Everyone knew that Irene was the thread that linked us. David Mahoney, one of DNA's members, said that even those who never knew her would feel her loss. The idea of continuing without her was unimaginable.
Last week, I finally had a chance to tour the Pickering Nuclear Generating Station. As I turned down the road towards the plant, Ontario Power Generation's sole windmill came into full view. Stately, slender and beautiful, hovering over the plant, it reminded me of Irene and I smiled.
Years ago, in the heyday of the nuclear cult, no one spoke out about irregularities at the plant for fear of losing their jobs. Today, safety is the first priority. Failure to follow strict procedures or to report those who fail to comply can mean immediate dismissal. Our guide talked about the changes that they have been required to make ~ a second fast shutdown system, upgrades to the fire protection and emergency services.
These were things that Irene had identified as problematic. These things that they now boast as being fixed were at the top of Irene's carefully researched "to do" list that she had patiently presented to the nuclear regulators years before. After almost four years of wondering what we were going to do without her, the voice inside my head says, it's already done. She made a difference. We made a difference. It happened, just like she said it would.
As we came to the end of our tour, our guide asked if anyone knew Irene. I couldn't believe my ears. He told us that the re-start of Pickering was conditional on the safety improvements that Irene had lobbied for. I cried like I haven't cried since her funeral. Her life, and her sudden stupid death, finally makes sense.
When I got home, when I could talk again without sobbing, I called Jeff, the gentle soul who first brought Irene and Dave to us. As I tell him the story I can hear a telltale crack in his voice. It mattered, I tell him.
It mattered, he says. Her work, our work, it all mattered.
The Ontario Power Authority, the government agency responsible for meeting Ontario's electricity needs, is expected to include new nuclear construction in its upcoming report.
Go to Greenpeace.