Yankee Rowe was a powerful piece of history

  • From left: Wayne Zavotka and Leonard Laffond look at part of a draft of Pres. Dwight D. Eisenhower's "Atoms for Peace" speech, which announced plans to develop nuclear energy plants. RECORDER PHOTO/DIANE BRONCACCIO—

  • Leonard Laffond, who worked at Yankee Rowe for 31 years, looks at a photograph of the original staff members who ran the nuclear plant’s control room. RECORDER staff/DIANE BRONCACCIO

  • Laffond, who worked at Yankee Rowe for 31 years, looks at a photograph of the original staff members who ran the nuclear plant’s control room. RECORDER PHOTO/DIANE BRONCACCIO—

  • A model of the Yankee Rowe nuclear power plant, with a cut-away view of the reactor. RECORDER PHOTO/DIANE BRONCACCIO—

  • An Atoms for Peace U.S. postage stamp RECORDER PHOTO/DIANE BRONCACCIO—

  • Leonard Laffond points out how long it took to decommission the nuclear plant. RECORDER PHOTO/DIANE BRONCACCIO—

Recorder Staff
Published: 9/15/2016 5:56:39 PM

ROWE — Although it happened 24 years ago, Leonard Laffond clearly remembers when the Yankee Rowe nuclear power plant announced it was closing for good.

“That was the fateful day,” he said, finding a copy of the Feb. 27, 1992 Recorder, with its headline about the plant shut-down.

“They gathered us all into the turbine hall, and the president stood on a pedestal. They told us that the plant was shutting down and was not going to open again,” said Laffond, who had worked there 31 years. “It completely changed everything.”

Today, all but the stored canisters of spent fuel rods are gone, but Yankee Rowe’s history lives on in a special display at the Rowe Historical Society’s Kemp-McCarthy Memorial Museum.

A model replica of the dome-topped nuclear reactor that used to sit in the Yankee Rowe visitor center has now found a home in the society’s museum, along with photographs and other memorabilia that came along through every stage of the nuclear plant’s life span.

Yankee Rowe was the third nuclear power plant in the nation and the first to be built in New England. In the spring of 1955, Rowe selectmen — in what was then a town of 250 people — learned their town was selected for construction of a prototype nuclear power plant as part of President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” program.

“While, at the same time that the United States, Great Britain and Russia were trying to figure out how to handle Atoms for Peace, a local Board of Selectmen were trying to figure out how to handle a local plant for Atoms for Peace,” remarked Wayne Zavotka, chairman of the Historical Society.

“The 207 residents of this rustic New England community, on the Vermont border, consider it ‘just another hill town,’” the New York Times wrote on March 11, 1956. “However, the people know there are going to be changes when a $33,4000,000 nuclear power plant is built on a 1,000-acre site along the Deerfield River. They know the coming of the Yankee Atomic Electric Co. and its technicians and nuclear scientists and construction workers is bound to have an impact on the hitherto peaceful existence of the Franklin County town ...”

According to “A History of Rowe, Massachusetts,” the old Noyes-Wheeler Farm that became the site of the nuclear power plant had been known as “Rowe’s Golden Egg,” because of the large tax revenue generated by the valuation of all that farm’s equipment and cattle. But the “Golden Egg” grew when the estimated $57 million power plant came into the picture. Before that, the town’s total assessed valuation was only $695,403.

“The future effect of this rise in valuation was difficult to contemplate,” wrote Nancy Newton Williams. “That the town might pay people to live here was one of the rumors circulated; so was the rumor of electricity that would be ‘too cheap to meter.’ These things, of course did not happen.”

But to ensure a smooth transition for this town, selectmen formed a bylaw committee that presented bylaws and zoning regulations that were approved in 1956, and gave townspeople a sense of security by having the right to regulate future development. Rowe became the first town in Franklin County to enact zoning.

The exhibit includes a framed letter from President George H.W. Bush in 1990, congratulating Yankee Rowe on its 30th year anniversary of safe operation. There’s also a watercolor painting of the plant and old newspaper articles about the plant in its early stages of development.

On display is a fuel assembly . “There were 76 of these in the reactor core,” said Laffond. “That’s what made the steam that turned the turbine.”

According to the exhibit sign, one fuel assembly could power 5,000 homes for a year and made as much electricity as 20,000 tons of coal or 90,000 barrels of oil.

Laffond said he started out at the power plant working as a janitor, but went on to become an auxiliary operator, earning his senior operator’s license.

Laffond remembers Russians visiting Yankee Atomic during the Cold War era, to inspect the plant and to be certain that the “Atoms for Peace” spent fuel rods weren’t being recycled for use in weaponry. He said there were tamper-proof seals on the casks of spent fuel.

“Later, I was an instructor on a training simulator in Monroe Bridge,” he said. “The simulator could do everything,” said Laffond, holding up a photo of the simulator and another of the plant’s control room.

After a partial meltdown in 1979 at the Three-Mile Island plant in Pennsylvania, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission required Yankee Rowe to have its own simulator for training purposes.

“Before that,” Laffond explained, “you would have to have them train on simulators in Chicago.” They made us build our simulator.”

Laffond said the simulator cost $6 million to build; but when the plant was decommissioned, the simulator was sold off for $100,000.

Construction of the plant took three years and $57 million. But the decommissioning process wasn’t completed until 2007 — 15 years after it closed.

“When it was open, there were 65 of us working,” said Laffond. “And when the plant closed, there were 265 of us — because of all the regulations and testing that had to be done.”

This exhibit includes an aerial view of the grounds as they look now. With the exception of the storage pool of spent fuel rods, and a maintenance building, the site is a mowed “green field.”

Besides bringing tax revenues and jobs to town, the Yankee Rowe power plant brought 40 more families to the area, who came for jobs, but also stayed and became active in their respective jobs. Kathy Heiligmann, who did much of the research for the exhibit, said the plant managers had always been generous in donations to community programs — beyond Rowe. “Yankee was always there to donate, and there were many local businesses that prospered from it,” she said. “They encouraged the policy to buy local.”

They also bought a fire truck for Rowe’s neighbor, Monroe, Laffond said.

The exhibit can be seen in the Kemp-McCarthy Memorial Museum, at 282 Zoar Road, on Saturdays, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. through Oct. 6, when the museum closes for the season.

Also, those who can’t visit on Saturdays may call the museum to make an appointment to see the exhibit at another time. The phone number is 413-339-4238.

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