"A brilliant book of bearing witness to the environmental catastrophes of our times. Fearless and unflinching, this book demands our attention."

—Nicole Cooley, author of Breach

Glass Needles & Goose QuillsElementary Lessons in Atomic Properties, Nuclear Families, & Radical Poetics, considers nuclearism’s place in the poetic canon by surveying its physical and spiritual toll on health and language. Braiding research, memoir, and poetry, the book serves as a companion to the author’s poetry collection Two Faint Lines in the Violet as well as a primer for the poetics of social engagement.

After the death of the author’s father from complications of cancer, she discovers that the Massachusetts Department of Public Health had conducted an epidemiological study of the area where he lived—the Deerfield River Valley—also home to Yankee Rowe Nuclear Power Station. The study found statistically significant elevations in breast cancer, Down Syndrome, and non-Hodgkin lymphoma, the type of cancer her father had, manifesting as a brain tumor.

Caring for her father from diagnosis through death, the author learns that her father's closest neighbor had a brain tumor, too. Growing suspicious about the proximity of the power plant and its accompanying possible health effects, she unearths evidence of numerous incidents and accidents at a plant with a storied and historic past.

A braided essay punctuated by poems, the fragmentation and vacillation of Glass Needles & Goose Quills’ several storylines complicate and intensify its narrative thrust, revealing intersections in the literary, scientific, and medical arts. 

A prototype for President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” program, Yankee Nuclear Power Station in Rowe, Massachusetts began operations in 1961. The plant became the first pressurized water reactor built in New England and the third in the United States. Scheduled to be in use for only six years, it operated for nearly 32.

When it closed in October 1991, it also became the first PWR to be decommissioned. Industry professionals concur that the lessons learned at Yankee Rowe span almost every aspect of decommissioning and determined many present-day techniques.

With its request for an extension of the industry’s standard 40-year operating license, the plant also influenced the NRC's rules for relicensing.

Remaining at the 1800-acre site are two acres of secured spent fuel, staffed seven days a week, 24 hours a day, which the Federal Government was to have begun removing in January 1998. It remains on the site indefinitely due to contentions over how and where to permanently store spent nuclear fuel and waste.


Aerial view of decommissioned Yankee Rowe, ©Jim Armstrong 1985

Yankee Rowe Linocut: Stephen MacLellan

"We are conducting a vast toxicological experiment in which our children and our children's children are the experimental subjects."

—Dr. Herbert Needleman

In 1988, Yankee Rowe applied for the first extension of any nuclear plant's original forty-year license. Though Rowe ultimately withdrew its bid, citing cost, its decision was widely regarded to be an economic conclusion reached by way of safety concerns.

Seeking to avoid Rowe’s fate, the owners of the next plant to seek relicensing argued to the NRC that they were making relicensing unaffordable. In response, the NRC relaxed its rules, and since then, has granted license extensions to every reactor that has applied. As of April 2016, 87 of 99 US reactors currently operate on license renewals, well beyond their original design’s forty-year lifespan.

According to former NRC commissioner David Lochbaum, “The NRC didn’t want to find any more show-stoppers like they found at Yankee Rowe.”

As the next wave of nuclear power plants threaten to reach their extended lifespans of 60 years, the NRC is defining a subsequent license renewal application process which would prolong operations for yet another twenty years, bringing their potential lifespans to 80 years. 

To stay informed and exercise your right to comment on this measure, subscribe to receive email updates from the NRC.

Photo: Jeanne Menjoulet