ROWLEY — On dozens of lawns and along just about every major street in this town, Steve Comley has made known his request. Or maybe more accurately, it’s his definitive statement: President Obama is coming to Rowley.
The red, white and blue signs urge Obama to investigate the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Comley hopes that probe will start in Rowley with a one-on-one meeting. If that happens, finally he’ll be able to accomplish something he’s gone to extraordinary lengths to attempt over the past 27 years — give a president the secret tapes and the documents he’s amassed.
For almost 30 years, Comley, 70, has been on an obsessive campaign to hand deliver to the president a package of information he has gathered from anonymous whistleblowers, which he says shows a decades-old pattern of unfixed defects in the nation’s nuclear plants and a long trail of coverups by the NRC.
The Seabrook NextEra nuclear power plant in particular is his focus — Comley argues he has information to prove that it was improperly located, and as a result, it would be impossible to accomplish an emergency evacuation of the region, particularly in the summer months. Federal officials say the plant meets the standards, and the plant itself says Comley’s assertions about substandard parts are false.
He’s tried hard to get a president’s ear. Almost 30 years ago he managed to cleverly fool Ronald Reagan and slipped an envelope into his hand, but nothing came of it. A few years later, he was arrested when he tried to slip one to George H.W. Bush in a Portsmouth, N.H., restaurant. He’s been ignored by Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
He’s written three letters to President Obama, and then started writing to his wife Michelle when those letters went unanswered. He’s also convinced others to write and implore Obama to come to Rowley. No luck so far.
Rowley is a natural place for the meeting, Comley argues, because in the 1980s, 80 percent of its citizens signed a petition calling for a probe of the nuclear industry. He said he can’t understand how a president can ignore such a clarion call from an American town.
“For every single day that he ignores my letter, he jeopardizes the American people, and that’s going to be on his legacy,” Comley said. “America needs Rowley’s help to see that democracy is alive and well in this country.”
Comley has printed 400 signs asking Obama to investigate the NRC, most of which have been set out along roadsides in Newbury, Rowley, Salisbury, Seabrook, Ipswich and Hampton. Just over 100 have been stolen, he said, especially in Seabrook, where the nuclear plant has been operating for 24 years.
“A lot of people in Seabrook don’t like what I’m doing,” he said.
Comley splashed onto the national scene in the late 1980s, when his We The People organization provided an outlet for nuclear industry whistleblowers to leak their information in confidence. According to the New York Times, Comley was instrumental in providing evidence of counterfeit parts in nuclear plants across the nation. The substandard parts were found in over two-thirds of the nation’s nuclear plants. The Washington Post, Time Magazine and the New York Times featured him on their news pages. He spent a small fortune lobbying in Washington, where his unusual style caught the media’s eye.
Back then, he was known for his gruffness and his antics — like hiring a plane to fly over the White House to urge then-President Ronald Reagan to call him. It was a good publicity stunt, so he used it two more times — to get Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis’ attention, and to criticize New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu. For a while he was banned from attending NRC meetings because the agency considered him to be so disruptive. He fought the NRC in court and won. Along the way, he’s also amassed significant court fines, which he estimates at over $1 million, chiefly for refusing to turn over tape recordings he made in the 1980s with a high-ranking NRC informant.
These days, the battles with the NRC are fewer and less flashy. Comley continues to attend hearings and barrage the agency with allegations. The NRC largely dismisses his statements as outdated information that is no longer relevant and unsubstantiated by any named individuals.
“In response to your assertions regarding NRC wrongdoing, we noted that a number of your concerns are quite historical in nature, stemming back to your interactions with senior agency officials many years ago. Nevertheless, we provided your materials to the NRC Office of Inspector General for their review,” wrote Glenn Dentel, chief of the NRC’s reactor projects for the northeast region, in an October response.
It doesn’t faze Comley.
“This is my full-time job,” he said. “I guarantee you I’m going to bring Obama to Rowley.”
In the Newburyport area, there are dozens of activists who push hard for causes that are important to them. Arguably, none of them match Comley’s sheer doggedness and longtime devotion to seeing it through.
He regularly visits and calls state representatives, state senators, congressmen, and U.S. senators, hoping to get an audience. He’s tried to meet with both Gov. Deval Patrick of Massachusetts and Gov. Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire, to get them to sign letters demanding the NRC be investigated and to review Seabrook’s evacuation plans. He calls and writes to various White House officials and bureaucrats.
He gathers information from a variety of sources, all of which he keeps confidential. He says current and former Seabrook nuclear plant employees give him information, as well as nuclear workers at other plants, state police who are charged with coordinating evacuations in case of a nuclear emergency, and others.
“It’s very important that their identity never gets out,” he said. “If they do, they will lose their job and their career ... these are some of the bravest people in the world.”
He routinely visits local and regional newspaper offices and drops off thick packets of newsclippings, letters, photos and documents, ranging from tattered newsclips highlighting his maverick days in the 1980s to letters he wrote to Michelle Obama recently. He calls on national reporters he’s met over the years at major newspapers, magazines, and television networks. He doesn’t provide his source’s names or specific allegations to the press.
He hopes someone will listen. Sometimes they do. For instance, state Sen. Bruce Tarr, R-Gloucester, and state Rep. Brad Hill, R-Ipswich, recently cosigned a letter asking that the NRC hold a hearing locally to discuss Comley’s assertions that “the evacuation plan in question is ineffective within the required 10-mile radius in the summer months.” Sheriff Frank Cousins, a Newburyport Republican, sent a similar letter to the NRC last month.
But more often, he is ignored. Both governors Patrick and Hassan have waved off his attempts to get them to write letters on his behalf. He has a long list of unanswered calls from public officials he’s reached out to.
These days, fairly few stories are written, and his letters are not always published. It doesn’t stop him. He keeps calling, writing and visiting.
“I found out a long time ago that I’ve got to do a lot more than just complain,” he said.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has sent lengthy responses to Comley, addressing issues he has raised about the Seabrook nuclear plant. In general, the NRC responses state that Comley has not provided detailed information to substantiate his claims, and that most of his claims date to the period 1987-1990. The NRC advised Comley it can’t take action unless he provides details — something Comley won’t do because he distrusts the agency.
Regarding substandard and counterfeit parts, the NRC says it notifies nuclear plants whenever such parts are discovered. It also provides information on “corrective actions.” Regarding evacuation plans, from the 10-mile radius, the NRC says the Seabrook plant meets standards set by both the NRC and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Officials at the Seabrook nuclear plant say Comley’s assertions regarding the plant itself are false.
“Steve Comley is not a nuclear engineer, has never set foot inside of our plant, and has a well-known, long history of making highly speculative comments that don’t match the facts,” said plant spokesman Alan Griffth is a written statement. “In contrast to Mr. Comley’s assertions, Seabrook’s equipment and systems are maintained to the highest standards by highly trained nuclear professionals. In fact, Seabrook Station is completely shut down every 18 months for preventive plant maintenance that includes equipment upgrades and replacements. As a normal course of business, the plant undergoes regular inspections by our own engineers, independent inspections by two full-time on-site inspectors from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and multiple system-specific inspections by experts from NRC headquarters.”
In public circles, response to Comley is mixed. Some politicians roll their eyes when asked about Comley. Others don’t respond when called to comment.
But he also has a cadre of loyal followers who support his efforts, among them the Rev. Robert Hagopian, pastor of the First Congregational Church in Rowley.
“I love Steve and I believe in what he is doing,” Hagopian said. “He is a very courageous man.”
Hagopian has known the Comley family for years, and describes him as a man of faith and determination.
“He is so devoted to this. He’s made great sacrifices trying to alert people in their own backyards.”
Hagopian serves as a chaplain for the Rowley Fire Department and Newbury Fire Department. He said as a first responder to local emergencies, he agrees with Comley’s criticism of Seabrook’s evacuation plans. He also adds to it — beside beach traffic, Hagopian says traffic caused by new Seabrook shopping centers, which are located at the main entrance to the nuclear plant, will cause “horrendous” traffic problems.
“If an emergency evacuation were to occur, we could not get people out of here,” he said.
Hagopian also supports Comley’s contention that substandard parts exist in the Seabrook plant.
“To me, this is a timebomb that we’re sitting on,” he said. “It’s a major disaster waiting to happen.”
Comley is not a stereotypical anti-nuclear protester. He says he’s not anti-nuclear, rather he is a nuclear safety advocate. He’s not directly involved in the plant’s most storied opposition group, the Clamshell Alliance. Nor is he associated with the C-10 Foundation, a Newburyport-based group that monitors the plant and has the stated intent of shutting the plant down. He said he respects what both of those organizations do, but his strategy is different.
His family owns the Sea View Nursing Home in Rowley, and that’s where his nuclear passion began.
When the Chernobyl plant exploded in 1986, a woman in Comley’s nursing home read that the plume spread so far it affected cows’ milk in Vermont. She was almost in tears. The far reach of the radiation worried him, as well as his proximity to Seabrook. It got him thinking about how he would evacuate his patients if something happened at Seabrook, especially his patients who were too frail to move quickly.
He said the answer he got from the plant shocked him. Because Rowley is outside the 10-mile evacuation zone, those patients who can’t be immediately moved could be left behind with a volunteer to give them potassium iodine.
“I said, ‘Something’s wrong here,’” he said. It started his lengthy campaign.
“I will do anything it takes, in a peaceful way, to get this in front of the American people,” he said.