Movie showing in Brattleboro this weekend deals with living in 'atomic town'

Friday November 2, 2012

BRATTLEBORO -- In 1996, the operator of the three research nuclear reactors at Brookhaven National Laboratory revealed one of the reactors had been leaking tritium into the aquifer for decades.

Residents in the nearby community of Shirley, on Long Island, learned that not only was tritium making its way into their water supply, so were other radiological materials.

In her book "Welcome to Shirley: A Memoir from an Atomic Town," Kelly McMasters describes what it was like growing up in a town in the shadow of leaking nuclear reactors.

"It's a fascinating place," she told the Reformer during a telephone interview.

McMasters and her family moved to Shirley in the 1970s, when she was 5 years old. Despite the lab's proximity to her home, she had no idea it played host to three nuclear reactors.

"Shirley was founded as a summer haven for the working class," said McMasters.

The town was founded in the early 1950s by Walter T. Shirley, who McMasters described as "a complete vaudevillian (who) had incredible one-liners and a real knack for publicity. But he was also a grand liar."

As Shirley was growing into a real town, Brookhaven's nuclear reactors were leaking radioactive contaminants into the environment.

"Unfortunately, Shirley and the lab both descended into devastating sadness," said McMasters.

Eventually it would cost $460 million to clean up the site occupied by Brookhaven.

But the cost to the town itself is still being tallied. So high were cancer rates in Shirley that one of its streets was dubbed "Death Row." A class-action lawsuit was filed against the federal government in 1996 and is still working its way through the legal system.

"Those of us who grew up there had fathers and mothers who worked there in support capacities," said McMasters, such as janitors or in the facility's cafeteria.

McMasters eventually left Shirley, but her good memories of the town became mixed up with the reality of what she had left behind.

"Once I left and looked back I understood that the lab really felt ‘entitled' and that they were measuring our worth against the noble, important work they were doing," she said.

"Welcome to Shirley: A Memoir from an Atomic Town," is more than a memoir -- it's a chronicle of the history of a town.

"For me, the main character in the story is the town itself," she said in an interview conducted in 2008, shortly after her book was released.

The book caught the attention of Riverkeeper board member George Hornig and his wife Joan, who decided to produce a movie, partially based on the book.

Filmmakers Sheena Joyce and Don Argott created "Atomic States of America," which documents a journey to communities around the country located near nuclear reactors.

The film premiered at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival and will be presented Sunday at 4 p.m. during the first Brattleboro Film Festival at the Latchis Theater.

Following the movie, McMasters and the filmmakers will be available to answer questions.

McMasters has a local connection to Brattleboro.

Her aunt, Kathy "Stretch" McMasters, lived in Wilmington and worked at the Reformer as a writer and photographer.

"She was the reason I became a writer," said McMasters.

Though her aunt died in 1990, they had a very close connection, she said.

"I haven't been there in more than 10 years," said McMasters. "It will feel like coming home. I feel like my aunt is bringing me back. She is looking down and smiling."

"Welcome to Shirley: A Memoir from an Atomic Town," was listed as one of Oprah's top 5 summer memoirs. McMasters' essays, reviews, and articles have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post Magazine, River Teeth: A Journal of Narrative Nonfiction, Tin House, Newsday, Time Out New York, and, among others. She holds an MFA in nonfiction writing from Columbia's School of the Arts and is the recipient of a Pushcart nomination and an Orion Book Award nomination. McMasters teaches at and in the undergraduate writing program and Journalism Graduate School at Columbia University. She splits her time between Manhattan and northeast Pennsylvania, where she lives with her two sons and husband, the painter Mark Milroy.

Bob Audette can be reached at, or at 802-254-2311, ext. 160. Follow Bob on Twitter @audette.reformer.


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