Chris Rosenblum | Nuclear activist was a ‘powerful force for good’

Geography professor Judith Johnsrud, who spend decades fighting the nuclear power industry against nuclear waste practices, died at age 82.
Geography professor Judith Johnsrud, who spend decades fighting the nuclear power industry against nuclear waste practices, died at age 82. Photo provided

I never met Judith Johnsrud, but I wish I had.

I wish I had known this legend.

Johnsrud, a former geography professor and College Heights resident, died on March 9 at 82 after a long illness. She may not have been a household name, but to her fellow environmentalists, she was a titan.

They revere her for an enduring legacy: a lifetime spent opposing nuclear power; teaching about the dangers of nuclear waste, irradiated food and low-level chronic radiation exposure; and trying to leave the world a better place.

The nuclear power industry lost a thorn in its side.

Humanity lost a smart, tenacious advocate for its health and future.

“She combined gentleness with power,” wrote Judi Friedman, of the People’s Action for Clean Energy organization. “I was privileged to know her.”

Johnsrud’s Penn State doctorate, “The Political Geography of the Nuclear Power Controversy,” documented the nuclear fuel chain. But she ventured far beyond the ivory tower.

As a tireless activist for 47 years, Johnsrud prolifically spoke and testified about the nuclear power system — from uranium mining to utility production to waste management practices — and its environmental and biological impacts.

According to her longtime companion, she probably logged more than 100,000 miles on her car annually, delivering lectures across the nation whenever asked.

“Judy was very interested in and believed in social justice, and that’s where it all came from,” Leon Glicenstein said. “She also believed that through education and knowledge, people can make their own decisions about what they want.”

A shy person who loved cats, classical music and murder mysteries, Johnsrud became a warrior in action. Helen Caldicott, an Australian physician and anti-nuclear advocate, called her a “powerful force for good.”

Though Johnsrud didn’t prevail in her fight against the licensing of the Three Mile Island power plant in Dauphin County, she wouldn’t give up. After the infamous 1979 partial meltdown, she braved radiation to monitor the clean-up and keep the public informed of any risks.

From the exposure, she permanently lost most of her sense of smell.

Her courage also led her twice to Ukraine, then within the former Soviet Union, to inspect the radioactive ruins of the Chernobyl power plant destroyed by a reactor explosion.

She helped found the nonprofit public service groups Environmental Coalition on Nuclear Power, Beyond Nuclear, and Nuclear Information and Resource Service — just some of her many ties to environmental, safe energy and anti-nuclear organizations.

In addition to testifying before Congress, Johnsrud served on the federal Department of Energy’s Advisory Committee for the Low-Level Radiation Research Program and on the Radiation Advisory Board of the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

As a guest speaker, she appeared before parliamentary bodies and symposia in Sweden and elsewhere in Europe, Japan, the former Soviet Union and other countries.

“She became one of the world’s most reliable experts on the health effects of radiation, especially low-dose and low-continuous dose exposures,” the NIRS said after her death.

She also was adept at exposing “the half-truths meant to obfuscate or sound reasonable, often put forth by the proponents and defenders of the nuclear industry,” Glicenstein said, recalling one heated response. During a forum, Johnsrud infuriated an industry official so much with her points that he shoved her off a low stage.

But she couldn’t be pushed around in court while representing the ECNP during a hearing after the Three Mile Island disaster.

When a judge kept refusing to allow her to ask a Nuclear Regulatory Commission official if the agency had a threshold limit for released radiation that would require it to alert the public, Johnsrud rephrased the question five times.

Finally, Glicenstein recalled, the judge relented and the NRC official gave a curt but revealing answer. “No,” he said.

“One of my biggest heroes just passed away today,” wrote Mike Ewall, the founder of Energy Justice, a grass-roots environmental group.

“You may never have known her, but we all owe her so much. Her long lifetime of activism stopped numerous and massive nuclear threats ... Dr. Judy Johnsrud, you’ve taught me so much. Together, we helped stop a multi-state nuclear waste dump. Your teachings have carried through 20 years of my work and will continue to be taught for as long as I’m able to teach.”

Born in 1931 and raised in Hammond, Ind., Johnsrud moved to State College in 1965. Two years later, a bizarre federal government project ignited her activism.

Project Ketch, proposed by the Atomic Energy Commission, sought to detonate 1,000 atomic bombs underground in northern Pennsylvania to create natural gas storage caverns. Johnsrud helped defeat the plan, the first time in U.S. history that a citizens’ coalition stopped such a federal project — and the start of her life’s work.

She went on to lead the National Solar Lobby in Washington, assist the New England Coalition on Nuclear Pollution and, among other associations, serve on the boards of Sierra Club’s Pennsylvania chapter and the group’s National Nuclear Waste Task Force and its radiation committee.

In Pennsylvania as well as nationally, she championed legislation addressing the storage and measurement standards for nuclear waste products.

“She inspired many people, inside Sierra Club and beyond, to work to halt the dangerous release of radionuclides (isotopes) into the environment,” the Sierra Club said in 2012 when giving Johnsrud a lifetime achievement award.

“Without a doubt, Judy has been the most important anti-nuclear advocate in Pennsylvania’s history.”

At the ceremony, in keeping with her humble nature, she reportedly said she didn’t deserve the award.

I disagree.

Someone who cared enough about strangers to drive to distant towns at her own expense in a “traveling file case” — as Glicenstein recalled her document-stuffed car — merited recognition. Frugal by nature, she often slept in her car, to the consternation of her loved ones.

“She would go to any community,” said Diane D’Arrigo, the NIRS radioactive waste project director, who worked closely with Johnsrud. “She would drive there day or night, if needed, for no recompense.”

Someone who urged people to educate themselves warranted multiple honors.

“She told people: ‘Do your homework. Know what’s going on. Don’t just accept what I say or what they (the nuclear industry) say. Look it up and do your homework,’ ” Glicenstein said.

And someone who risked her well-being to protect others, as she did at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, earned every accolade given to her.

“It was more important to make sure things were going on correctly than worry about her own health,” Glicenstein said. “She knew the dangers.”

Said D’Arrigo: “She would do what it took.”

The specters of sickness and genetic damage from chronic doses of low-level radiation — such as in toys, jewelry, furniture, coins and other everyday items legally made from recycled nuclear material — particularly concerned her friend, D’Arrigo said.

“That is where I believe we need to think carefully because I see this, as a geographer, as the gradual thickening of the radiation environment around us, as more and more is added year after year, slowly decaying, out of control, concentrating, re-concentrating through the food chain, reaching human beings, in one form or another, in one place or another, in one time or another,” Johnsrud once told an audience.

“And no radiation recipient from that thickening of radiation environment will ever be able to identify the cause of his or her illness. That’s what’s ahead.”

Near Chernobyl, in a lifeless city, she confronted the ultimate nightmare, the reality she feared most.

“Only the blowing of the wind, the only sound,” Johnsrud said. “And seeing the works of man, of humankind, deserted, contaminated, unusable, destroyed, gave us a sense of ... of our human fallibility that nothing else has.”