The health of our Nation has been left in the hands of companies whose goals are mainly to make money- not to protect the public welfare. It is our job to tell companies- and our government- that we want safer alternatives. It works. -Carrie Barefoot Dickerson
My own nuclear nightmare
Outside in the garden, the children are chasing a fledgling jay, trying to capture it before the cat does. Chickens scatter before their frantic scrambling. Clouds are gathering in a greenish sky, humid and warm. A southerly breeze picks up.
Then the explosion. Not thunder. Something else.
The wind carries new particles with it as the clouds darken further. Sensing danger, we try to shoo the chickens into the coop and bolt the door. The wind is heavy now, whipping the trees and banging the screen door against the house. The tiny jay squawks as it is caught at last. I struggle to get the cover onto the dovecote. Cats meow at the door to be let inside. Rabbits have fled to their burrow beneath the deck. All are afraid. Something foul is in the air.
Twelve miles south the reactor, breached by a saboteur’s bomb, releases a cloud of radioactive particles, which are carried on toward the unsuspecting town.
I must stay outside until I find the children. Sirens drone, drowning my voice as I call to the children to get inside. I look for the funnel, knowing full well that despite it being in “Tornado Alley,” no tornado has ever touched down here. Finally I see them, running towards the house-from so far away- just as the first raindrops spatter on the driveway.
The rain feels gritty when it falls. Before we can all get inside, birds begin to drop from the sky.
Awake with relief
In May of 1973 when I was in grade school, my grandparents, my mother and I shivered in the water-filled storm cellar of their Tulsa home as a tornado raged overhead. Like the finger of God it pushed over homes, ripped off roofs, and plucked trees from their roots, capriciously skipping around the neighborhood. We could not tell that were spared until we left the confines of our underground shelter.
That very same month and year, the Public Service Company of Oklahoma decided it would go ahead with its plans to build, according to the headline of the Tulsa paper, a “450M N-Plant Planned for Inola.”
Taking its name from the Cherokee word for “black fox,” Inola is a small town in Green Country in the “pretty” part of Oklahoma, about 13 miles SE of Claremore in Rogers County. It was close to my hometown of Tulsa too- only 15 miles east.
The Inola area has a large Amish and Mennonite population, while the county boasts of its favorite son and namesake, Will Rogers. Other notable locals include singer Patti Page, astronaut Stuart Roosa, and Lynn Riggs who authored the play that would later become the famous musical, Oklahoma. Each of these celebrities has a museum dedicated to them, a school, or street named in their honor.
But there is one lady whose notoriety should rightly transcend that of the pop singer, humorist, or playwright. She is Carrie Barefoot Dickerson, the reason why Oklahoma has no nuclear power plant.
the road leading to the property where the Black Fox plant had begun construction
A Caring Teacher
It is not what we possess, but how we live our lives that make all the difference.
Barefoot Dickerson, or “Aunt Carrie” as she was known in the community, was born May 24, 1917 in a log cabin. She met her future husband Robert while they were high school delegates to the annual 4-H convention. He was an award-winning dairy farmer, and she graduated with a degree in Home Economics in 1938. After they married, the Dickersons settled on Robert’s family farm in Claremore. Carrie taught for awhile at the German-speaking Mennonite school east of Inola, then later at other schools in Pryor and Claremore.
Interested in nutrition, she retired from teaching around 1957 and opened a bakery and health food store. After hearing of her customer’s many worries about their elderly relatives getting adequate care and nutrition, the Dickersons decided to open a nursing home in 1964 to address these concerns.
Now serving as dietitian at “Aunt Carrie’s Nursing Home” in Claremore, Carrie felt she was helping fill a community need. When in 1967 the laws changed, now requiring an RN to supervise the staff, Barefoot Dickerson hurried to apply to nursing school just two months shy of her 50th birthday- the cutoff age for admittance to the program. From farmer to teacher, baker to nurse, Carrie had stayed busy and always helpful. Her greatest challenge was yet to come.
An Unlikely Activist
Life is too short and too precious not to do the right thing. It is every American’s responsibility to stand for our principles and to take action when needed.
Now an RN, Carrie was working at the nursing home when she found a copy of the Tulsa paper on her desk chair. The page with the news of the proposed Black Fox N-Plant to be built near her Claremore home left her curious. At first she wasn’t even sure what an
“N-Plant” was, but she wasted no time researching it. After several months of study, Carrie was horrified at what she had discovered.
As she was a habitual clipper or articles of interest from the paper, Carrie had read earlier reports of wildlife birth defects coinciding with effluent from the Manhattan Project. After her research on the hazards of atomic reactors, she made a point to attend the first public hearing on the proposed Black Fox plant.
A person who had trusted that her government would protect her safety, Carrie was outraged to find that the government would allow construction of a nuclear reactor even though it knew a meltdown could render an area the size of Pennsylvania uninhabitable. Frightened and concerned for the future of her state and her grandchildren, Carrie decided that despite her lack of political and publicity experience, she would hold a news conference. At the conference she announced the formation of the political action group Citizens’ Action for Safe Energy (CASE).
Her husband Robert expressed doubts that she could succeed against such odds. Said Carrie, “You can’t win if you don’t try.”
The Crusade Begins
She showed people that one person can make a difference- mostly by bringing people together – Patricia Dickerson Lemon, Carrie’s daughter
Her new found activism was based in love for her children and for her community. “When I saw my little grandson playing outside on the green, uncontaminated grass, I knew in my heart that I was obligated to do all I could to keep him and future generations safe.”
She was a great peacemaker, attracting many dedicated allies to her cause. Concerts and benefits were held to stop the Black Fox plant. In 1978 Bonnie Raitt with Jackson Browne and Danny O’Keefe played at one Tulsa concert to raise awareness. Claremore residents showed their support with bumper stickers and flags. Dickerson gives credit to Ralph Nader and the “Critical Mass” conferences, which led to the founding of Public Citizen’s Critical Mass Energy Project.
After the partial core meltdown at the Three Mile Island facility in 1979, their cause began to pick up momentum. With costs for building the plant skyrocketing, PSO turned to the Oklahoma Corporation Commission (OCC) , hoping the agency would allow them to hike the electric rates, passing on these increased construction costs to consumers. A turning point was reached in 1981 when the OCC held hearings on the rate increases, which proved to be very unpopular. After Carrie and many others testified, the OCC declared that the Black Fox Nuclear Facility was “no longer economically viable.”
Tulsa World photo by Stephen Holman, June 2006
Carrie Dickerson proudly displays news that her battle has been won
A Costly Battle
I always kept in mind that I was fighting Nuclear Power, not people.
At last, after nine years and $550,000 in lawyer’s fees, Carrie emerged victorious. PSO abandoned the project in 1982 after the OCC’s decision. Black Fox is the only nuclear power plant in the US to be canceled by a combination of legal and citizen action after construction had already begun. 1973 turned out to be a high-water mark for the nuclear industry, as no US reactor ordered since that year has been completed.
The legal fees of the nine-year battle cost the Dickerson family dearly. After selling their nursing home, mortgaging their farm, and scrounging every penny they could, Carrie’s husband Robert died before the closure of Black Fox was announced. After his death, Carrie got by on social security, by selling vitamins and quilts, and teaching quilting classes. When asked if she regretted the tremendous financial and emotional sacrifice, she responded, “I’m only glad that I had it to spend.”
clipping from a Tulsa World article
A nuclear free legacy
After Black Fox was canceled, I knew a book should be written to encourage other groups to do something about nuclear plants, to let them know you can fight city hall and win!
Carrie remained active in the fight for safe, renewable energy and against atomic power. When the nuclear industry planned to transport radioactive waste through the state, she alerted Oklahomans to this hazard. She also helped persuade Oklahoma’s Tonkawa tribe to reject an effort to dump highly radioactive waste on the Tonkawa reservation.
In 2006 Carrie Dickerson was awarded the inaugural Lifetime Achievement Award by the Oklahoma Sustainability Network for her work on behalf of the people of Oklahoma and the environment.
With the help of her daughter Patricia Lemon, Carrie wrote an autobiography in 1995, recording the story of her battle to prevent Public Service Co. of Oklahoma from building the Black Fox plant. For many years, Carrie’s youngest daughter Mary cared for her and helped her with her research. Interested in sustainable and clean energy, Carrie and Patricia were working with illustrator Gwen Ingram on a children’s book detailing the history of windmills. From the Carrie Barefoot Dickerson Foundation Website:
Mary’s unexpected death in 2005 cast a shadow over Carrie, but did not stop her from persevering on her project. She had a preliminary edit finished and printed in early 2006, and after much reading and discussion, had worked tirelessly to finish the book. She finished her final edit on Nov. 16 and died quietly in her sleep early the next morning. As her friends said, death could only overtake her while sleeping. She was too busy the rest of the time!
Today Oklahoma remains one of only 19 US states without a nuclear power reactor.
We are forever in the debt of the spirited grandmother who gave so much of her time and money to make certain our children and our land remain uncontaminated by atomic pollution. Her story proves that even ordinary citizens can fight incredible odds and win.
inscription reads: 1986- Made by Carrie B Dickerson, Claremore Oklahoma; in memory of Harry F. Mills, father of Marleta Mills McGuire, Edward McGuire, and mother Dolly McGuire.
One of the quilts Carrie made for a friend, all stitched by hand.
Much gratitude to Carrie Dickerson’s friend Marleta McGuire of the Rogers County Historical Society, without whom this article would not have been possible.