Salt ’n Spar

Pink lemonade and atomic balls

Sat, 02/04/2023 - 8:45am

I’m feeling nostalgic this afternoon, so I’m turning the calendar back to the spring of 1979, just a few weeks after I joined the staff of the Wiscasset Newspaper, now known as the Boothbay Register-Wiscasset Newspaper. Back then the paper cost 25 cents and came out Thursday mornings. Lots of things have changed over the years but oddly enough not the overall size of the newspaper’s front page which still measures about 22 inches high by 16 inches wide. So I’m looking at the May 10, 1979 edition of the Wiscasset Newspaper, Volume 10, No. 19, which means the newspaper was in its 10th year, week number 19.

The week’s four top headlines, those appearing above the fold included: “Schooner Friends Plan Meeting,” “Pink Lemonade Party Tonight,” “Water Hearing in Wiscasset Set for Tuesday Night” and “Maine Yankee’s ‘Atomic Balls’ Are a Curiosity to Residents.”

Before we get to the “Atomic Balls” (the story with the biggest headline that I wrote) let me tell you about the others. The Schooner Friends was a group hoping to restore the Hesper and the Luther Little, the so-called last of the four-masted schooners left grounded on the Wiscasset waterfront. The schooners were broken up and hauled away years later. The Schooner Friends were led by two names you may recognize, Sean Rafter and Cheryl Rust, both of whom still reside in Wiscasset and are still very much active in community affairs. The old ships sadly weren’t saved but it wasn’t for the lack of trying.

The Pink Lemonade Party was an evening fashion show put on every spring at Wiscasset High School. Students, both girls and boys, modeled clothes they’d designed and made in home economics class. Ester Mitchell who taught the class organized the event held in the gymnasium on the stage. Cupcakes baked by the students and pink lemonade were served to the audience seated at tables and get this, live music was provided by the WHS orchestra! By the way this was the high school’s 13th annual Pink Lemonade Party which means it started in 1966. I don’t recall when the tradition ended. Too bad because it was a fun event and always well attended.

The planned water hearing was being held by the Public Utilities Commission and concerned a proposed rate hike by Maine Water Company. This was a time when Wiscasset’s public drinking water came from Ward Brook. More often than not the water resembled iced tea and always tasted pretty bad. Complaints about the water quality are what prompted the town to form Wiscasset Water District. The town’s water now comes from Nequasset Brook via Bath Water District.

Now about those Atomic Balls. The story started after people who lived along the Back River and Montsweag Bay began finding small, orange-colored foam rubber balls washed up along the shore. The balls, about an inch in diameter, were traced back to Maine Yankee, the nuclear power plant. This was a couple months after the accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant near Middletown, Pennsylvania and people were paying closer attention to Maine’s nuclear power plant located here in Wiscasset. Around this same time a group calling itself Sensible Maine Power took root. It was from George Riley, one of its founding members, that I got wind of the story.

Riley, a photographer, lived with his wife Laurie on Middle Street, Wiscasset. Their studio was on the second floor of the building that once housed the Wiscasset town office. Riley had someone take his picture holding a handful of the foam rubber balls he’d strung together. He gave me a copy to run with my story. I’m not sure who coined the phrase, “Atomic Balls.”

I telephoned Don Vigue, Maine Yankee’s spokesman, who acknowledged the balls had come from the nuclear plant assuring me they weren’t radioactive. He explained the rubber balls were used to clear sediment which formed in the plant’s four condenser units from water drawn from Montsweag Bay. The balls rubbed against the inner walls of the pipes keeping sedimentation from forming. Vigue said occasionally some of the balls were inadvertently released into the bay, a problem plant technicians were working to correct.

Just to be sure the balls were non-radioactive Sensible Maine Power checked a few of them with a Geiger counter, or so Riley told me. Something I didn’t think to ask Vigue at the time but probably should have was if these bite-size foam rubber balls posed any harm to fish, birds, or wildlife. A few months after the story appeared the atomic balls disappeared and as far as I know were never seen again. Maine Yankee like the Hesper and the Luther Little is gone as well.

Phil Di Vece earned a B.A. in journalism studies from Colorado State University and an M.A. in journalism at the University of South Florida. He is the author of three Wiscasset books and is a frequent news contributor to the Wiscasset Newspaper and Boothbay Register. He resides in Wiscasset. Contact him at